Monday, June 18, 2012

Mechanics on Monday: Quick and dirty tips for improving your dialogue ~ by Tina Vaughn

I was first hired as a newspaper reporter when I was only seventeen years old. And though I’m about to date myself here, this means I’ve spent half my life listening to other people talk and doing my best to write down exactly what they’ve said. If nothing else, my career in newspaper has helped me develop an ear for conversation, and if you have an ear for conversation, then you can have an eye for dialogue.
In my humble opinion, dialogue can make a story. It can also smash it to smithereens. Even if all the other elements (plot, internal conflict, external conflict, characterization, etc.) are perfectly aligned, stilted and unnatural dialogue is the fastest way to undermine all that hard work. In an effort to prevent that, here are a few of my tips for writing realistic and relevant dialogue.

We'll start with a snippet from No Sweeter Love, my debut release from Ellora's Cave.

Former lovers, Emily and Ryan have just seen each other again after ten years.

This is what I could've written.

Stop staring at me like that,” Emily shouted.
Like what?”
Like you hate me and love me. I don't like it.”
He was making her really nervous and she was still so mad at him because he'd left her years ago.
You're still argumentative, aren't you,” Ryan noted.

Instead, we have this.
Don’t look at me like that,” she said.
His frown morphed into a tight smile, revealing killer dimples. “Like what?”
Like I just spit in your cereal and like you want to eat me with a spoon. It’s weird.”
Her mind was whirling with a decade’s worth of images and feelings. Just seeing him again had rattled loose a million questions, a million old hurts and longings.
He laughed. “Still not afraid of anything, huh, Em?”

• Dialogue tags. He said. She said. Those are my favorites, and I use them sparingly. Don't try to get fancy: ejaculated, screamed, gritted, growled, hissed... There's a long list of potential dialogue tags. Do you really need them? Unattributed dialogue only becomes a problem if you’re writing long passages between your main characters or there are three or more characters on the page. If your characters are talking, then they should also be doing. What do they see? What do they feel? If you do have multiple characters on a page, then you’ll have to use names instead of pronouns, otherwise you'll confuse your readers. (There’s always an exception to the rule, right?)

• Remember that dialogue is actually spoken, meaning it’s a sound. A person can’t smile or run a noise. Strong dialogue should evoke the emotion you need to convey so any use of a descriptive dialogue tag would just be redundant.

• Dialect and accents. I once described my writing style as Sex and the City meets Dukes of Hazzard. I like writing smart and sassy southern women who might say y’all, darlin’ and sugar—but not in every sentence. With dialect and accents, a little goes a long way. Overuse will a) jar your reader from the story and b) sound silly.

Y'all wanna go down t' crick and dip y'all's toes inna water. I reckon it ain't cold.”
Huh? I'm not even sure what that sentence says and I wrote it.

• Remember dialogue is interactive. Your characters are talking to each other, not at or over each other. Make them engage with each other, and you'll engage your readers. This is where their chemistry will shine. If one asks a question, then the other should respond in some way. If one is flirting, then the other can either be shying away or playing the game. Dialogue is the perfect way to showcase conflict and characterization. Which brings me to…

• Keep in character. If your heroine is a sixteen-year-old vampire slayer, then chances are she’s not going to be discussing the presidential election. If your hero is king of a faraway land, then chances are he’s not going to be using the word “ain’t.”

• Dialogue is not filler. You’ve lost your way. Your middle is sagging a bit. “I know,” you say. “My hero and heroine can have a disagreement.” You proceed to write four pages of dialogue where your characters argue about the weather. Is this action? Well...technically, yes. Is it conflict? Well...literally, yes. Is this integral to your plot or central to your story? No. Cut it.

• As you know…no! A brief stroll down memory lane is okay. Making your characters outline and discuss in detail some incident from the past that they both know already, just so you can share the information with your readers, is a sneaky and boring way to dump backstory. Don't do it.

In closing, here are a couple of my favorite exercises for writing dialogue.

• Eavesdrop. Don’t worry. No one has to know. Do you enjoy writing at a local coffee shop or other public place? If so, take five or ten minutes to actively listen-in to what the man and woman or the kids at the next table are saying. They’re not going to know that you’re transcribing their conversation. Let your fingers fly. Don’t worry about punctuation or anything like that. Just get down the gist of their conversation as best as you can. Too shy to try that. Record and watch your favorite television show. Take notes. Once you've completed the above tasks, analyze the dialogue. Do you notice speech patterns specific to males or females? Do they have accents? Can you tell their ages, professions, or socio-economic status just by their word choices?

• Read aloud. This is literally the easiest way to hear any oddities.
Example: My nine-year-old daughter wants to go out for yogurt.

Father, I do not want to go to the ice cream shop. I would rather have yogurt.”
Read that aloud. Yikes. She's a scary, little robot child.

I don’t want ice cream. Let’s go get yogurt.”
Ahh. There's my kiddo.

Note: Most people use contractions when they’re speaking. Also, if they’re having a one-on-one conversation with someone, chances are they won’t address the person by name, at least not frequently.

• Examine your own conversations. How often do you and your significant other talk about, let's say, the brand of cat food you're going to buy, your child's report card or fuel prices. I bet you discuss the mundane more than you'd care to admit. It's important to reiterate: we're writing romance. We're telling a love story and, fingers crossed, it's filled to brimming with emotion, conflict, sexual tension and passion, culminating with the happiest of endings. But we only have so many words to tell that story. Therefore, your characters' dialogue must mean something and serve a purpose. Keep in mind, at all times, your goal is to move the story forward.

So, can you share some of your favorite tips for writing dialogue? As a reader, how important is dialogue to you? I'm looking forward to reading your responses and suggestions. Thanks so much for visiting.


  1. Hi Tina! Great post! I try to kill off as many adjectives as I can, that's probably my big thing. 'Said' is hard to beat.

  2. Thanks so much, Charlotte. :)"Said" seems to sum it all up, doesn't it? I hope you're having a great day.

  3. Great post, Tina, and I love the example you selected from "No Sweeter Love". That was a vivid bit of dialogue that I hovered over as a reader. I love killer dialogue in a story--bare, sparse language that makes us feel like we're sitting in on a conversation. As a writer I like playing with things left unsaid, because it seems that people only rarely say what they think. For instance, in romance an "I love you" is usually felt long before it is spoken.

    I re-read my dialogue carefully and usually out loud. I have been jolted out of a book by dialogue that is too long or complicated to be said naturally. It's a peeve, and it feels like author intrusion. One thing that I struggle with when writing dialogue is capturing the natural cadence of conversation, especially the pauses and lapses. Sometimes I'll throw in an action to recreate that pause for the reader, or I'll say, "He paused", though I dislike that.

    For tips? I'm a chronic eavesdropper. :-)

    1. Thank you, Natalie. :) I agree with leaving things "unsaid." I think romance readers are discerning and intelligent and don't have to have every little thing spelled out for them.
      Yay! I'm so glad to hear that I'm not the only eavesdropper among us.

  4. Hi Tina
    Great dialogue tips thank you! I have to remind myself not to use my 'telephone voice' when writing dialogue.
    Enjoyed the snippet from 'No Sweeter Love' must add it to my to read list :)

    1. Hey, Tracey! :) So great to *see* you here. I have a "telephone voice," as well. No one ever recognizes me when I answer the phones at the office...though, now that I think about it, that might be a good thing. ;)

      I'm so glad you enjoyed the snippet. Thanks so much for your support. (Hugs)

  5. Hey, Tina! Great post. You had me laughing quite a bit :-) But you're so right. I love good, realistic dialogue that keeps the story moving. And I think part of that comes with really being inside the head of the character you're writing at that moment-men, women, age-it will all impact how a character speaks. Awesome post!

    1. I agree, Victoria. To me, characterization is key, and I think when authors have a great grasp of their characters, then a lot of other elements fall in to place naturally.

      Thanks so much! :)

  6. My, you do know how to write an attention grabbing title. :) Your post was great. Enjoyed your example from "No Sweeter Love."

    Believable dialogue is so important to a good story. I think my favorite tag is action. Love to know what a person is doing while talking. It can show so much about the person and the feeling behind the words without directly telling the reader.

    Thanks for sharing some really great tips!

    1. haha! That headline-writing skill comes from my newspaper job, as well. ;)

      Oh, I love to know what a character is doing while they're talking. I think little actions and internal glimpses give readers a more rounded and realistic experience...almost as if they are in the room with the characters.

      Thanks so much! :)

  7. My compliments on the title. lol! It certainly got my attention.

    I can forgive a lot of things in a book. Terrible dialogue is not one of them. Without good dialogue it's almost impossible to suspend disbelief.

    Great post filled with excellent tips. Thanks!

  8. You like that, huh? ;)

    I completely agree. Without good dialogue it's hard to feel invested in the characters, and if readers aren't invested, then they'll quickly move on to a new book -- and a new author.

    Thanks so much! :)

  9. Terrific post, Tina.

    You can always pick out well-written dialogue because it seems so effortless. As a reader, poor dialogue is guaranteed to pull me out of a story. I hate it when I have to question whether that character would really say that. It's even worse if I have to question why it was said. You made such a great point about regarding this about not using dialogue as a filler. It's my number one rule - if you could take it out and it would change nothing about the reader's understanding of the story, scrap it.

    I love the point you made about the dialogue tags too. My writing used to be littered with them. Over-clarifying was a big flaw I had to overcome. I still have to watch for it now.

    Thanks so much for sharing, especially with examples from your own work. I always find that so useful. I'm doing the same next week, so thank you for showing me how it's done. ;-)

    1. Thanks so much, Lindsay! :)

      I absolutely agree with you; the who, what, when, where and why of dialogue is so important and integral to the "real" story an author needs to write. If the author doesn't allow the characters to be true to themselves, especially in what they are saying, then how can a reader trust in and believe the story...or the author, for that matter.

      I'm looking forward to your blog post next week.

  10. Brilliant post Tina - fab title! I agree with everything you wrote. I used to refer to a list of dialogue tags, and in my first half dozen mss, I hardly used the word "said". Now, I rarely use anything else.

    My favourite trick for writing dialogue is to keep a Quote Book. Since I like fast-paced dialogue, I'll write down exchanges with family/friends that make me laugh (my sister is SO quick). I'll jot it down straight away so I don't forget the exact wording. I've been doing it for so many years that people often say something that makes me laugh, and then look at me expectantly, hoping it rated high enough to make it into the Quote Book!

    When writing I'll pull it out and read through, figuring out what made those moments so funny. The content? Lack of relevance? Pun? And I try to apply that to my own dialogue.

    I LOVE this blog! Looks gorgeous! Great work ladies :) I'm going to have to think of a name for you as a collective though...I call The Minxes of Romance the Minxes, the Seven Sassy Sisters the Sassies, so now I need an appropriate name for The Hot Pink Typewriter gang! Any suggestions? x

    1. It has to be the Hotties or the Pinkies then. ;-) Ahem. You might want to check that suggestion with my colleagues... Linds x

    2. LOL. I think we're Hotties, Linds. ;-)

    3. Thanks so much, Madeline. I love the idea of a "Quote Book." That's awesome! :)

      The Hotties! LOL I love it. :)