Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Something Worth Saying: Writing Effective Dialogue

By Joyce Scarbrough, @JoyceScarbrough

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: I'm a sucker for good dialogue. Conversations draw me in, and a wonderful turn of phrase can make me love a character. But dialogue isn't as easy as copying down what people say, and it can be tough to find the right balance between real dialogue and real-sounding dialogue. Please help me welcome Joyce Scarbrough back to the lecture hall today to share a few tips on writing effective dialogue. 

The valedictorian of her high school graduating class, Joyce Scarbrough is a Southern woman weary of seeing herself and her peers portrayed in books and movies as either post-antebellum debutantes or barefoot hillbillies รก la Daisy Duke, so all her heroines are smart, unpretentious women who refuse to be anyone but themselves. Joyce writes both adult and YA fiction and has four published novels as well as several short stories available as Kindle downloads. Joyce loves hanging out with other writers and stays active in the Mobile Writers Guild as well as her regional chapter of SCBWI. She’s lived all her life in beautiful LA (lower Alabama), she’s the mother of three gifted children and a blind Pomeranian named Tilly, and she’s been married for 31 years to the love of her life—a superhero who disguises himself during the day as a high school math teacher and coach.

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Take it away Joyce...

The best comment I ever got from a critique group member was, “Your dialogue crack-a-lackles!” I must admit that I do love writing dialogue. It seemed to come naturally to me when I first started writing, but I've picked up a few tips and techniques over the years that I like to share with my fellow writers whenever I get a chance. Here's a short list that summarizes the way I try to do it.

1. Leave out the banalities.

Dialogue isn't supposed to mimic real conversations. It's supposed to make them a lot more interesting. Readers don't want to wade through all the niceties and chit chat people normally engage in to get to the meat of the conversation.
Example: “Hi, Mellie. It's so nice to see you again. How long has it been?”

“Goodness, Scarlett, I don't know. At least a few months. How's your family?”

“Fine, thanks. And yours?”

“Oh, just wonderful. Well, except for our house getting burned to the ground by the Yankees.”

Everything before the last sentence can be relayed by saying Scarlett and Mellie greeted each other. The most important thing to remember about writing good dialogue is that it needs to either advance your plot or help to develop one or more characters. If it doesn't do either one, it probably should be left out.

2. Read dialogue aloud to check for stilted speech.

There's no better way to detect unnatural sounding dialogue than by reading it aloud. This is how you spot places where you should leave out some words instead of writing complete, grammatically correct sentences.
Stilted: “There's nothing to do. Why don't we go out somewhere?”

“Would you like to go with me to see a movie?”

Better: “I'm bored. Let's do something.”

“Want to see a movie?”

3. Don't use too many speech tags or narrative beats.

Unless you have more than two people in a scene, you don't need to stick “he said” or “she said” after every line of dialogue. After the initial ones to establish who is speaking in what order, I usually reserve speech tags for when I want to break up long blocks of dialogue without overusing narrative beats. Some writers get carried away with the stage directions in a scene and tire me out from all the coffee sipping, sighing, finger drumming and hair fluffing going one while the characters are talking.

Oh, and while we're on the subject of those long blocks of dialogue...

4. Characters shouldn’t deliver monologues to each other.

Most people can't keep quiet for more than three or four sentences while someone else is talking without commenting or asking a question. Remember, dialogue creates that “white space” on the page that readers crave because it represents action to them. If one person speaks for too long, it's the same as long passages of narrative to the reader's eye, so keep up the give and take.

5. Unless your name is Mark Twain, don't overdo the dialect.

Weird phonetic spellings are hard to understand, and they get old really fast. Most of the time, you can convey regional speech using a select few dialectical conventions, colloquial phrases or speech patterns that represent the accent you want to suggest. However, you shouldn't try to write dialect from a place you're not familiar with. I'm from Alabama, so I don't try to write a Brooklyn or Maine dialect. Conversely, a certain famous Maine writer really shouldn't try to write Southern dialect. Bless his best-selling little heart, he ends up making us all sound like we're out on the raft with Huck and Jim.

Here's how I represent Southern speech in Different Roads:
“Who is this?” Jaycee asked.

“I'm your daddy's wife, Sylvia. We been married for nigh on five years now.”

“My condolences.” Jaycee's wonderful dinner soured in her stomach. “Guess my invitation got lost in the mail, huh? What do you want?”

“Now lookahere, missy, there ain't no call for you to be rude. I tried to get Jake to call when you sent him that picture of you and your new baby. I told him you looked like a right nice girl with a fine little family.”

“Well, thanks so much for your efforts,” Jaycee said, “but why are you calling me now? Did he finally sober up long enough to realize I was gone?”

“He don't know I'm calling you.”

“Then why are you calling me, Sylvia?”

After a pause, she said, “Jake's got the lung cancer. He's fixing to die.”

See how you can tell that Sylvia is from the rural South even without all the “s'poses” and “dats” and “yores”? And Diana Gabaldon does such a fantastic job of evoking a Scottish brogue in Outlander, using only a few words and spelling conventions, she'll have you doing your Merrida impression for weeks after reading it.

So these are my suggestions. What are some of your favorite dialogue tips and tricks?

About Different Roads

When Jaycee Stevens is six years old, her mother dies and leaves her with an abusive drunk of a father. She grows up a foul-mouthed hellion who lives in fear of anyone finding out that she's really a love-starved little girl terrified of the dark. Her intrepid spirit carries her to college on an athletic scholarship, but she's tripped up there by a poor little rich boy named Bud Stanton who hides in a bottle like Jaycee's old man. Bud is everything she despises, and she wants him more than she's ever wanted anything. When she finally stops fighting her attraction to him, they fall hard for each other, and God help anyone who gets caught in the crossfire. Their rollercoaster life is gritty, touching, and funny, and just when they think they've made it safely to the end of their wild ride, Jaycee's childhood comes back to derail her when she has to go home and face her biggest fear: What happened to her in the dark?

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  1. A fine checklist. I'm especially grateful for saying to tone down the speech tags and beats-- too many pundits fight the other side of that war and insist "never use any tag but Said" as if that one couldn't get wooden too.

    Most of all, I think you summed up the problem with longer passages well. Dialog does give a sense of action--and a visual cue to it with its white space--because one idea can lead to an opposing or contrasting one in another instant. And it's that opportunity that readers waste when they let someone drone on... or forget that none of us are that comfortable with hearing it in real life. Bravo.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. Your tips are spot on. I use a different approach. I show setting (like dogwood, etc.) to help the readers see the NC in my characters. But I do try to show it through some dialogue. My characters are 13. So I have to be careful to leave their teenness in too.

  3. Nice southern dialect. Not too heavy--but we definitely her her "accent." I like "the" lung cancer. Nice touch.

    1. She would also have said "the Google." Ha ha

  4. Thanks for some great tips. I'll be linking to this one my blog.

  5. I guess I'm doing all right with my dialogue, Joyce. I leave out most of the niceties, and even when I think a long passage of dialogue is needed, I chop it with narrative and comments from the one(s) listening.

    I'm relieved to know that I don't have any major problems with dialogue. This guest post you've done has lifted my confidence. Thank you.

  6. Reminds me of how "speaking Scottish" characters are supposed to make people whince if they really know the Medieval conventions ... (I got this from a Swedish colleague of yours, I suppose he meant dialogues meant to sound from centuries ago and did not mean his use of Braid Scots).

  7. Fantastic tips! I've been working on improving my dialogue for months, and this is the perfect resource!