Wednesday, January 4, 2012

How to Write Good Dialogue Part Three

Man, it feels like forever since How to Write Good Dialogue Parts one and two. In part one we talked about avoiding Q&A sessions, not letting your character say everything they're thinking, and pacing yourself. In part two we discussed not letting it be all about your main character (MC), being cautious about "info dumps", and being mindful that characters should speak differently from one another. 

Today I'm going to answer some of the questions you guys asked. First I wanted to share this gem of wisdom that comes from Jenna Blake Morris. She says, "One thing that tends to drive my crazy is when authors never use contractions in dialogue, like "I do not know" or "it is in the closet." Random examples, I know, but unless that character is foreign, from a historical setting, or is clumsy with English, that makes me twitch. Or when they have a young character spouting elegant, unrealistic dialogue."

That makes me twitch too. This is a mistake I often see in the manuscripts of new writers because they haven't yet turned off their English teacher's voice. My AP English teacher - the lovely and brilliant Ms. Bromberg, who told our whole class she believed in me, so don't get the wrong idea here about my feelings toward her - marked off points every time I used a contraction in an essay. And I found it so hard to refrain from contractions because they SOUND better. I finally just had to turn off that preference, and write the way she wanted me to - no contractions - so I could get an A in my English class.

But after 2 years of not using contractions, it was really difficult to get back in the habit of writing with them. So, yes, use contractions. And only let 4-year-olds use words like "distressing" if they're Fancy Nancy fans.

Moving on to conversations between more than 2 people:

A writer said, "So, I'm not sure what's on the agenda for the future dialogue posts, but I would much appreciate something about conversations between more than 2 people..."

Drat. This is a tough one to answer.

Conversations between more than two people are hard. It's hard in real life (at least for this introvert) and it's hard on paper as well. Here are a few thoughts on how to do it well.

My husband and I were at a work party a few weeks ago. (This is an illustration, not a subject change - stick with me!) There were about 20 of us there, and we all ate at one long table.

What happens when you're at a big table like that? You talk to whomever is across from you or next to you. Maybe you sometimes catch snippets of other conversations going on at the table, and maybe you stop to listen when that policeman is telling a really cool story about a perp he was chasing who fell through the floor. But mostly I was engaged in conversation with the people across from me, and the people next to me.

So, in your manuscripts, you want to achieve a balance of the group talking and side conversations. If the group is talking, it must be a topic that engages most or all members. Like in this scene, my main character, Sabrina, has found herself on a triple date with her two (girl) best friends, a guy they know from work, and two of his friends whom she's never met. As soon as I wrote myself into this situation, I wanted to write my character right out of there because it was hard to keep up the pacing:

Nate pushes napkins to our side of the table. “You eaten here before, Autumn?”
Autumn blinks, as if confused by why he’s addressing her. “Uh, no.” She turns to me. Apparently she’s designated me as Nate’s date. “Have you, Sabrina?”
“A couple times.” I fiddle with my Queen of hearts. I don’t know why this place doesn’t just take your name or give you a number or something, why they insist on foisting a germy playing card on everyone.
“Their reubens are the best,” Patrick says.
Izzy flicks her 9 of Clubs, makes it spin on the table. “Reubens are disgusting.”
“Agreed.” The-third-guy-whose-name-I-don’t-remember grins at Izzy as if they are officially soul mates. “Sauerkraut is the second grossest food on the planet. I mean, what is it?”
Patrick and I answer at the same time. “Cabbage.”
Patrick flashes those white teeth and dimples at me, but I look away.
“What’s the first grossest food?” Izzy asks with a hint of a smile.
“Cottage cheese.” He actually shudders when he says it.
“No way,” I say. “How’s that possibly grosser than, say, pig’s feet? Or bologna?”
Patrick is still giving me the teeth-and-dimple combo, which must be like a one-two punch for girls like Autumn.
“Or soft boiled eggs?” Nate offers. “Those things freak me out.”
Autumn frowns into her soda. I don’t think this is the kind of conversation she imagined having on our triple quasi-date. She also probably thought she’d be sitting beside Patrick, instead of wedged between me and Izzy, with the boys on the other side of the booth. And with Patrick across from me.

Be strategic about where people sit because those are who your characters will get into side conversations with. Plus you want to optimize tension. Sabrina knows that her friend Autumn likes Patrick, but unbeknownst to everyone else at the table, Patrick asked Sabrina out the day before. She's super uncomfortable in her seat, which is exactly why it's the best spot.

If someone isn't contributing, get them out of there. They need to go to the bathroom or see a friend walking by. Or they need to break into a side conversation with someone else. Like when guy number 3 and Izzy were not moving the story along, I separated them:

“I work at the AMC downtown, and Trent”—Nate jerks his thumb at Boy #3—“works at Hy-Vee.”
Izzy sends her card spinning again. “When people come through your line with cottage cheese, do you shudder?”
Trent grins. “And I make them scan it themselves.”
Izzy smiles full-on, and they lapse into their own volley of other foods that disgust them. Miracle Whip. Spam. Cheetos.
I glance at Patrick, who arches his eyebrows like See? I knew this would work out.

And now, because Izzy and Trent are talking, I only have four people to deal with. Soon Sabrina will receive a phone call and excuse herself.

Group conversations are obviously necessary to breathe life and realism into the story, but too many of them will slow down your plot. You want to cut away from them and focus on your main character as soon as you can.

Okay ... was that helpful at all? There are a few more questions to answer - one on writing pauses into dialogue and one on what people say versus what they feel. I'll get to those on Friday.

Tomorrow is news day! If you have news you'd like to share - finishing a first draft, submitting an article to a magazine, joining a writer's group - send me an email at Stephanie(at) to let me know so we can celebrate with you!

Anybody else have dynamite dialogue tips like Jenna's to share?


  1. This was great! Very helpful! :D Thank you so much. I have a question. I have a book set in the Victorian England time period. Obviously, they didn't talk EXACTLY like us modern day American people. I've done my research, I know some phrases they usually say, I've tried to watch movies and pay attention to the dialogue and stuff like that, but it's very difficult for me to transfer the knowledge I've gleaned to paper. Do you have any tips for writing setting appropriate dialogue?

  2. Random Thinker, I'll chime in here, since I write historicals. =) A big thing is cadence and word choice--pay attention to the way sentences are arranged, and keep up in your browser so you can check to see if the words you use existed at the time you're writing in--you'll be surprised by some of the words and phrases that weren't around yet!

    As you're writing, try to say your character's lines in the appropriate accent. Don't spell things differently or anything, but if you "speak" that way as you're writing, it'll come through in your sentence arrangement and word choice. (Even when you don't want it to, LOL. I kept hearing my Virginia-bred characters speak in a British accent for some reason, probably simply because of the time period, and though, "Eh, no biggie." Until one of my critique partners said, "Why do they sound British? Would they still have spoken that way by this time in Virginia?" Um, no. That was ME, not them. It came through.)

    It's also helpful to find just a few words or phrases that were popular at the time to pepper throughout. In my recently-finished Colonials, these were 'tis and nay. Having a character say something like, "Nay, 'tisn't so!" kept ME grounded in their setting.

  3. Great post! I like using contractions.

    I once wanted to write a "book" about a girl who lived in a house with 9 friends of hers, and made one of the guys her boyfriend after 2 or 3 pages.. It became boring, complicated and confusing -- which is why, I think, I gave up.

  4. Thank you so much Roseanna! :D

  5. Random Thinker--
    I've found that it is extremely helpful to read books published in the period. Not historical fiction, but books like Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Pride and Prejudice, and Little Women. (None of those are Victorian England, but I'm sure you could find some.) You can read a bit before getting into writing, and get into the mood of the language.

    Lamplighter Publishing is a great resource for old books, as is Project Gutenburg (the latter being FREE!)

  6. Dickens is the standard for Victorian. The Brontes' are earlier but close enough to get a feel. George Eliot's great too.

  7. "Too many (group dialogues) will slow the story down." I actually have a problem with that, where my MC is on a road trip . . . sort of . . . with three other people. What happens when all four have to be included? I mean, sooner or later, one of the younger sibs is going to pipe up and join the *ahem* PRIVATE conversation. How do you deal with that? Just write them out of the story until needed again? Or do what Jane Austen did with Ms. Bates in Emma. Used her annoyingness as a tool.

  8. Roseanna, along the lines of making your characters sound different than they should, a pet peeve of mine is when I'm reading a period book and they have someone in the 1800's say something like "thanks," or hug someone of the opposite gender, especially if they didn't have an "understanding." Sorry, I just read a book like that, so I'm ranting. :D

  9. OH THANK THE LORD... lol Becki, I did that in my Victorian book >.< and according to a number of sites that was a ummmm HUGE NO NO! Glad to know that's something that bugs people, I must must must keep an eye out for that in my book.

  10. Does anyone know if people used contractions in medieval times? One of the things that sets my MC apart is that she never uses them, but I'm beginning to question my own logic.

  11. Becki, I would do both. Use annoyingness as a tool whenever you can, but when you need a break from them there are lots of options. They can be listening to their iPod, playing with a game, sleeping.

  12. Rachel, I don't know, but I'm sure someone on here does.

    Roseanna White's biblical fiction books are written without contractions, and she does it so well you don't even notice. (Until she mentions it in an interview, of course)

  13. Rachel, English wasn't even English then, so you have some leeway. Read a bit of Shakespeare to get a feel for the closest thing to medieval you can really get and still be in understandable English, or take a glance at Chaucer (in the Middle English) to see what they actually did contract or not. In general, medieval writers tend to use 'tis and 'tisn't for flavor and otherwise do whatever they please, LOL.

    And yeah, my biblicals have no contractions--I conveyed formal vs. informal solely with word choice and arrangement, a decision made to reflect the language they would have spoken and how it works (I studied Ancient Greek in college). I was glad to get back to the land of contractions! =)

  14. Hi Rachel, I do think you have some leeway with the contractions. I personally think they would've shortened words, just like we do today. But the key is choose ONE WAY and then BE CONSISTENT.

    My historical fiction novel at first had no contractions, but since it's written in first-person present tense, my editor felt contractions made it sound more natural. And so they do! Using non-contractions does give a sense of formality.

  15. I'm currently experimenting with a period drama, set in Regency England. My biggest guide at this point is Jane Austen's books. I try to keep my characters language roughly similar to her characters. With manners and etiquette I have the 'Jane Austen Guide to Good Manners' which seems to be helping a little.

  16. Oooh, I should add that "consistent" doesn't mean every last thing has to be contracted. If you do use contractions, leave some things out that you would naturally say NON-contracted, if that makes any sense!

  17. Thanks, Stephanie! Now I know what to do! :)

  18. Ugh, I hate boiled eggs...

    I like the idea of 'killing' people off by sending them to the bathroom or having side conversations.

  19. One thing I have found is that little kids aren't going to speak with correct grammar. They are going to say can and not may. ect.


  20. Great post! And I love your writing, Steph -- insanely random stuff that's funny and interesting. :D Like on that beautiful movie, Once (not to change the subject!) when she's dragging a vacuum cleaner around town because he fixes them -- so random, but hilarious!

  21. I LOVE your reference to Fancy Nancy, by the way, Stephanie. :D My family loves Fancy Nancy, and I have an eight year old sister who has been using words like "scurry" in actual sentences . . . CORRECTLY, no less! :D

  22. I think that the day to day "filler" dialogue is hard. It's necessary to have some but it's hard to not have to much and to make it good.

  23. Wow, thanks so much. This is actually one of the most useful posts I've read on here so far actually! I've really been wondering about the multi-character dialogue thing. :)

  24. Hey! I've been following your blog since the beginning of last year and I decided to toss you an award! It's the best I can do.

    Thank you so much for your tips! You've inspired me to continue my work with excitement!

  25. Alyson, SO true. My daughter routinely says she "got teached" something instead of taught. Or instead of "does" she says "do's" (Not sure how I should spell that. Basically it sounds like do but with an s at the end.)

    Emii, I've never seen Once! Sounds like an excellent scene :)

    Becki, Fancy Nancy is the BEST. Sometimes I think I like the books more than my daughter.

  26. "4readin" it's a tough balance for sure. I feel like I'm always tweaking that in the editing process.

    Kayla Anne, I'm so glad you found it useful! You apparently were not the only one wondering.

    Daniel (or DJ, not sure which you prefer), your award totally made my night! What an honor. So happy you've been encouraged.

  27. Stephanie,

    I'm glad to hear it!

    You may call me Daniel, as most do. 'DJ' is my first and middle name initials combined. I use it as a sort of "pen name".

    I actually do have a question concerning your post: Are there any techniques to improving my dialogue-composing skills that you could recommend?

    Thank you!

  28. Daniel, can you clarify what you mean by "dialogue-composing skills"? I'd hate to write up a post, then discover I completely misunderstood :)

  29. Stephanie,

    Let me restate myself (and I apologize for having to do so): I was curious to know if there are other ways to improve the dialogue I write? Not necessarily tips, but exercises.

    I hope that wasn't too confusing.

  30. Yes, that makes sense! I have a couple exercises in mind; I'll get a post up next week. Great question!

  31. I always love the excerpts of your writing that you use in examples! The whole "grossest food" conversation cracked me up. (:

    Up until this year, I've always been lucky enough to have English teachers who let me keep my contractions and fragments -- but my current teacher is very by-the-books. Now I'm having to do with my essays exactly what you described in your post. I figure I'm lucky I bad easygoing teachers before now, though.