Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Forget He Said, She Said – Three Easy Tricks for Better Dialogue

By Tiffany Reisz, @tiffanyreisz

JH: Once again, I'm tickled pink to hand the blog over to the always delightful Tiffany Reisz. She's becoming quite the regular here and hope this trend continues. Today, she's here to give us a few tips on spicing up our dialogue. I especially like tip number two myself.

Tiffany lives in Lexington, Kentucky with her boyfriend (a reformed book reviewer) and two cats (one good, one evil). She graduated with a B.A. in English from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky and is making both her parents and her professors proud by writing BDSM erotica under her real name. She has five piercings, one tattoo, and has been arrested twice.

When not under arrest, Tiffany enjoys Latin Dance, Latin Men, and Latin Verbs. She dropped out of a conservative southern seminary in order to pursue her dream of becoming a smut peddler. Johnny Depp’s aunt was her fourth grade teacher. Her first full-length novel THE SIREN was inspired by a desire to tie up actor Jason Isaacs (on paper). She hopes someday life will imitate art (in bed).

If she couldn’t write, she would die.

Take it away Tiffany...

Hi Writers!

My name is Tiffany Reisz, and I write damn fine dialogue. I say this without reservation. I suck at math. I’m mostly tone deaf. My paper plane creations are mediocre at best. I know my weaknesses. I know my strengths. One of my biggest strengths as a writer is dialogue.

Dialogue between characters creates the melody of a work of fiction. It sets the beat, sets the tone. Is your book masculine and moody? Then your dialogue should be spare and terse like Hemingway’s. Is your book playful and poetic? Then the dialogue in your book should be sprightly and witty.

Your best tool for creating memorable characters is the dialogue they speak. When we talk about a movie we love, we inevitably quote the lines that most impressed or affected us. Take a second and jot down three movie lines that you fell in love with the moment you heard them. Look at those lines and think about how a small handful of words strung well together seared a powerful moment in your memory.

I wish I knew how to quit you… (Brokeback Mountain)

I’m going to fall in love with you. You don’t have to love me back. (Untamed Heart)

Throw one at me, Hashhead. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you. (Brick)

But the sad fact is so many authors are simply bad at dialogue. Their characters sound flat or wooden, stilted and lifeless. They don’t sound like real people.

So how do you fix that? How do you make fictional characters sound like real people? Like real people but BETTER than real people.

Here are three easy tricks I employ in my writing to create memorable dialogue. I’ll use lines from my own work that readers have told me they love. That way I won’t get sued.

Trick #1 – Humor 

Humor writing is hard but it’s not impossible. Watch stand-up. Rent classic comedies. Read the writing of David Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs or whatever humor writer floats your boat. You can learn how to write a witty line of dialogue. Not every exchange of dialogue has to be serious. What people joke about tells you as much about their character as what they take seriously.

From chapter three of THE SIREN (book one of The Original Sinners). Nora, my erotica writer, is trying to convince a literary fiction agent to work with her. She’s attempting to use her verbal dexterity to prove her words are worth his attention.
“Excuse me,” Zach began, trying to regain control of this conversation, “but didn’t I repeatedly insult you this morning?”

“Your kvetching was very fetching. I like men who are mean to me. I trust them more.”
Zach could have asked, “Wasn’t I mean to you this morning?” and Nora could have answered, “Yes, you were, but I’m fine with that.” But where’s the fun in that? She shows him just how fine she is by playing with words, doing a verbal dance around him, daring him with her humor to say no to someone who can wield words like a sword.

Trick #2 – Answer a Question with a Fish 

Usually you answer a question with an answer, right? What time is it? Twelve-thirty. Where are we going? To the movies. Want to have sex? Yes, please.

But simply answering a question with a straight answer is boring. Next time one of your characters asks another character a question, have that character give anything but a straight answer.

From chapter ten, THE SIREN. Nora and Zach are getting drunk and talking about exes. At this point, we (the readers) haven’t met Nora’s ex-lover Søren yet, and I wanted the reader to be terrified and fascinated by him long before he comes upon the stage.
“But you left your lover and mine left me. You could go back to yours, couldn’t you?”
“Zach, Søren isn’t some boyfriend you have a fight with and then kiss and make up. He’s the invading army you surrender to before he burns your village down.”
Zach could have asked, “Couldn’t you go back to Søren?” and Nora could have answered, “Yes, but we had a difficult relationship and it’s not that simple.” BOOOORRRRINNNNGGG. Next time character A asks character B a question, don’t you dare let B give a straight answer. Find a more interesting way to answer (or even better, not answer) the question.

Trick #3 – The Volley 

My favorite characters are the ones with spunk, with life, with fight in them. Even when they’re down, they keep on kicking. They’re the people who will be arguing with the Grim Reaper even on their death bed. Put the feisty into your characters. Make them tenacious. Give them a bone to pick or a mystery to solve and let a character go until they get what they came for.

From SEVEN DAY LOAN. In this scene two almost strangers who’ve spent one passionate night together are getting to know each other the next day. Daniel is rich and older. Eleanor is poor and only twenty-three. Yet, she’s the one who’s here to help him. I try to prove that she’s more than up for the task.
“I’m curious. You’re a curiosity. As long as you don’t mind answering personal questions—“

“How personal?” Daniel interrupted.

“Unapologetically intrusive, knowing me. Unconscionably so.”

“You have a large vocabulary, Eleanor.”

“And you have a large…” She paused as he gave her a warning look. “House.”

“I do.”

“How does a librarian afford a house like this? That was the first unapologetically personal question, for those of you keeping count.”
And back and forth goes the dialogue until the reader knows everything they need to know about Daniel. Me, the author, didn’t have to insert a huge chunk of telling explanation. Eleanor playfully interrogates him and the reader learns not only who Daniel is but what kind of person Eleanor is—curious, playful, nosy, unapologetic. Keep the verbal ball in the air and you’ll score points with readers.

One final trick of the trade—read your dialogue scenes out loud. Perform them like a play. If you enjoy performing them, the reader will enjoy reading them. If you bore yourself, you’ll bore your reader.

Now go forth and write! I’ll be over here staring at Daniel’s big…house.

About The Siren

Notorious Nora Sutherlin is famous for her delicious works of erotica, each one more popular with readers than the last. But her latest manuscript is different--more serious, more personal--and she's sure it'll be her breakout book...if it ever sees the light of day.

Zachary Easton holds Nora's fate in his well-manicured hands. The demanding British editor agrees to handle the book on one condition: he wants complete control. Nora must rewrite the entire novel to his exacting standards--in six weeks--or it's no deal.

Nora's grueling writing sessions with Zach are draining...and shockingly arousing. And a dangerous former lover has her wondering which is more torturous--staying away from him...or returning to his bed?

Nora thought she knew everything about being pushed to your limits. But in a world where passion is pain, nothing is ever that simple.

Get it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or eHarlequin.


  1. Tiffany is one of my favorite authors and I haven't even managed to get my hands on one of her books yet--believe me, I'm trying. This just cements it :)

  2. shes one of your favorite authors, an you have not read any of her books?

  3. My favorite dialogue to write is the volley. Especially if there are dishes being thrown.

  4. "Answer with a fish." I love that!

  5. Love the author's bio! Making both your parents and professors proud by writing BDSM erotica under her real name? I can sense the "sarcasm" there. can I apply these techniques to the timid yet always evasive Finn? The kind of person who says "I don't want to tell you anything" without looking malicious.

  6. @Steven Taylor. I follow Tiffany on twitter and have read quite a few of her short stories and excerpts she's posted on the web and around the place. I've had trouble getting the actual book because I'm in Australia and Amazon are being "helpful". But yep, Tiffany is most definitely one of my favorite authors.

  7. Hi Wen!

    No worries! SIREN is releasing in Australia THIS MONTH. You should be able to get a copy soon-ish.


    PS Readers like you are the reason I put free stories on my blog. That way everyone can find something by me. :)

  8. Ah, good thinking! It definitely worked for me :) I think that's a clever trick and worth other authors noting, too.

    I love your writing (and twitter feed) and I can't wait! I'll be looking for it soon then, squee!

    Hugs back at ya! :)

  9. Great tips Tiffany! Love the "fish" :) I never thought about it that way.

  10. I bought the book tonight, because the authors bio made me LOL. The first thing that popped in my head after reading todays blog was, I gotta read her book. Great marketing!

  11. ARE good at dialogue! I've made some notes for my next pass at my manuscript. Thank you :)

  12. Thanks all!

    Hope you like my dark twisty book, JeanElaine! And thank you, Julie! Dialog is one of my strengths. God knows I have enough weakness. Gotta be good at something, right?


  13. I LOVE writing dialogue so this article really speaks to me. I often write an entire scene in only dialogue. I leave off any "he said/she said", have no beats between, and then let others read it to see if they understand the scene. The ultimate object is for others to know who was speaking and what was going on strictly by what's said without all the extra info. It's a fun exercise.

  14. I bought the book tonight, because the writers bio made me LOL. The first thing which popped within my head after reading todays blog was actually, I gotta read this girl book. Great advertising!

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  15. I really enjoyed this post. Usually, I consider myself lucky if I can take away a useful nugget from an article like this, but this post did more than that. For me, your examples of better dialogue were genuinely eye opening. Thanks!

  16. I really like this post and I really enjoyed the whole content. I think this book with contain better dialog.

  17. And all this can be summed up as "write dialogue like writers you like reading". :-)

  18. Obviously this is great book with great thinking. I appreciate to the author. My best wishes with this book.

  19. Wow this was really helpful (and fun to read too). I just bought Tiffany's book SIREN from Amazon after reading this. I read the preview, and didn't even have to finish it...she's really good. I can't wait to read the book. And I'm bookmarking this post. I thought my dialogue was ok, but after reading this it could def be less BOOOOOORING!

  20. Could you stop by and write my dialogue for me this afternoon?

  21. I'm very fond of Daniel's

  22. Thanks for this article. Dialogue is one of my stronger points. The narrative, eh, not so much, who needs that? (yeah I need work on that too). Reading this now I have ideas for what I can make even better on my next revision.