Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Making dialogue natural

First, I want to quickly draw your attention to the tab up top that says 2011 Contest Winners. Those are bios, pictures, and web site links for the wonderful writers who have placed this year in the writing prompt contests. If your name is on there and you'd like me to add the extra stuff, shoot me an email.

A writer emailed me to ask, "How do you make conversations flow naturally? I didn't used to have a problem with this, but lately I feel like the conversations that my characters are having in my story are too jumpy and don't lead logically from one subject to the next."

This is a great question, though one I'm a little nervous about answering. Because I find dialogue is a "feel" kind of thing. So I can't give you any kind of formula for great dialogue, but I can toss out a few things that might help:

Don't make conversations all about your main character
When I look back at my early manuscripts, it's clear that in my head, my MC was the only one who had a life going on. Conversations fixated on my MC, her problems, her needs, and so forth. Not cool.

Here's a challenge for you - give everyone a problem. That keeps you from having to write stuff like, "What nice weather we're having." "Yes, we sure are." Or "Hi, how are you?" "Fine, how are you?" "Good. How's Trudy doing?" "She's doing great. Thanks for asking."


If everyone has a problem, dialogue instantly becomes more interesting. "What nice weather we're having." "All this sun is killing my garden." Or "Hi, how are you?" "I just hit a bunny with my car. How do you think I am?" Or "How's Trudy doing?" "Ugh. Don't get me started."

Instant improvement.

Don't try to make it read like real life.

Of course it needs to have a real life feel to it ... but we have lots of boring conversations in real life. Especially when we're forced into rooms with our extended family. Don't make your reader sit through Aunt Trudy's 20 minute monologue on her dog's agility training. The only person who's interested in that is Aunt Trudy.

They say fiction is life with all the boring parts taken out. This is true of your dialogue too. Don't make us sit through all the pleasantries ... unless it's one of those awkward moments when two people are seeing each other for the first time after a breakup or something.

Don't let your boys talk like girls. And vice versa.

In one of my early manuscripts, one of my guys kept using the word "fabulous." Everything was fabulous - weather, clothes, classes. No straight guy says fabulous that often. I don't think my husband has ever used that word. Make a list of words this particular character might say instead when they're describing something. Think about where their family is from, how educated they are, how educated their parents are, and so forth.

Think about the motivations of each character and what's going on inside.

The writer who emailed me this question suggested she might not know her characters well enough. This is possible. For me, when my dialogue is flat, it's because I haven't considered the thoughts and feelings of the other characters.

When I was writing Out with the In Crowd, I hit a major wall during an important conversation. Skylar's mom was informing Skylar and her sister that she was moving very far away and they could either choose to stay or come with her. Every word I typed was droopy and tired. I knew I wasn't doing the scene justice. Why isn't this working? I thought. Why can't I come up with any kind of twist or surprise?

Well, the problem was I was only viewing the scene through Skylar's eyes. And we'd spent the first half of the book watching her wrestle through feelings for her mom. So, no, she didn't bring any surprises to the table We'd spent, like, 30,000 words on her.

But when I took the time to digest what had happened to her sister during the course of the story, and what she might be feeling in all this, the conversation suddenly pounced to life. Skylar didn't have any surprises for me, but Abbie sure did.

Don't let everyone say what they feel
There's a time and place for tell-all scenes, but for the most part, your character's shouldn't be saying everything on their mind.

For example. In this scene, Marin is at the restaurant where her new boyfriend, Vince, works. She's convinced she just saw him flirting with a table of girls:

In the short hallway containing the bathroom doors, someone catches my wrist. I’m not surprised when I turn to find Vince giving me a puzzled look. “Hey, where you going?”

I point at the bathroom. “Disneyland.”

“Right.” He cocks his head. “What’s the deal? Katelyn and Ella bugging you?”

“No.” I try to yank free, but he holds on tighter.

He looks to his hand, capturing me, and then looks back up. “Are you mad at me?”

“No. I just have to go to the bathroom.”

And then the choice is yours. Does your character believe the lie, or no? Vince is the type to push, so he does:

“That’s not the face of someone who has to go to the bathroom. That’s the same expression you had when you ate here with your dad and came careening back here.”

“You saw that?”

“Are you kidding? You nearly knocked me over.”

“I didn’t know that was you.” His grip on my wrist softens, but I don’t pull away. “You were flirting with those girls.”

“What girls?”

“Those girls sitting by my table. The busty college girls.”

Vince bites his lower lip but can’t hide his smile. “Busty?”

“We should just end this.” I can’t believe those words just popped out of my mouth, but there they are.

Does Marin really feel like ending their relationship? No. If Marin were being 100% honest she would say, "I know I'm overreacting, and I'm sorry, but I have big trust issues. My dad walked out on us, my last relationship was a miserable failure, and you're so good looking it makes me insecure."

All good things for Marin to eventually realize ... but not good things for her to voice. Especially not yet. Make sure your characters aren't being too honest.

So those are the tips popping into my mind right now. Do you have any to share?


  1. When do we find out who won the last writing prompt?
    Alyson :)

  2. I read this about an hour ago, nodding my head the whole time.

    When I went back to editing my manuscript, I laughed out loud. One of my male characters said 'fabulous'!!!!

    Too funny. Needless to say, I cut that out as fast as I could get to the Backspace key.

    Thanks for the great tips!

  3. I love the idea of making a list of words a certain character would/wouldn't say.

    What do you think of characters that say certain words frequently? Have you ever noticed in real life how people are like that? Haha. I was about to type "you know how some people do that" I use "ya know" a lot. See what I mean?

  4. Wow that was soooo helpful! Now I'm going to go through my story and use these points to help edit! Thanks a million! :)

    Sierra from Yearning to Read

  5. A great tip (which is apparent in your example, Stephanie) is that characters shouldn't necessarily always answer one another. The first time I heard that it was an "Oh, duh!" moment. Because of course I knew it, but I'd never seen it laid out so clearly. But it's always fun to employ that one and have the characters answer a question with a question or with an observation seemingly unrelated to whatever the first speaker said.

  6. Alyson, I sent all the emails last night. Tomorrow there will be a post with the winner's names and some of the winning entries.

    Lol, Rachelle. Just watch - I'll open up my WIP and find the same thing :)

    Tonya, I think a little goes a long way with that. Like I think it should be restricted to one character, and it shouldn't be every scene. I have a real "or something" problem, I've noticed. Many of my sentences are like, "I just think you need some time off or something." I'm constantly hacking those.

    Sierra, so glad it helped!

    Ro, YES. That's an excellent tip. And you can learn interesting things about your character by paying attention to what they choose to change the subject too. Great one.

  7. Great advice. Sometimes the characters have nothing to say, and that's okay. Sometimes they have secrets and that's okay too!

    Excited for tomorrow!

  8. Is it possible to have to much dialog?
    Alyson :)

  9. Faye, yes, silences can speak volumes!

    Alyson, absolutely. My first drafts are always dialogue heavy, and then I have to go back through and add narrative so my characters aren't just talking heads.

  10. Just wanted to let you know I posted the author interview again! Blogger deleted it for some reason.

  11. Maddy, Blogger is having some issues. It ate my post from yesterday too, as well as the one that was supposed to go live today. On their status, it says they're still working to restore some data.

  12. This was some great advice =)
    It is sooo hard not to make guys sound to feminine, I'm writing a book called "Hearts of Freedom", and the MC is a 17-year-old guy.
    I think what I find so hard writing about a guy character, I can't make them sound like I would talk necessarily because I'm a girl, but I absolutely HATE making them say "Hey man, how was the game?" "Hey dude, did you see that girl over there?"
    I don't have any idea why; but "Dude" and "Man" annoy me soooo much lol. I think its overused sometimes, I throw those words in there a couple times when I'm writing about a guy... but it makes them sound really... uneducated. x)
    Maybe I should find a way to hang out with my teenage-guy friend more often and talk to him and find out the way he talks lol.

  13. Jazmine, that's hilarious. I definitely find myself resorting to "dude" and "man" in my guy dialogue. I'm comfortable writing guy/girl dialogue, and guy/guy-but-with-girls-present dialogue. When they're off by themselves, I have no idea what they say. I'm really tempted to send a tape recorder with my husband when he's heading out to hang with his guy friends :)

  14. This was good! As for the 'how the guys talk' thing, I think it's okay to not nail it. If you're writing for a mainly female audience they probably don't really want to read what guys really say if you catch my drift. They sort of want guys to be what they think they are. Not totally, because there has to be truth and reality in this, but it makes me think of when my husband and I watch a chick flick. He'll say, "no guy would ever do that, or say that." And my response is..."Good thing this movie was made for girls!" lol Of course this is entirely dependent on your genre and age group.

  15. Nicole, what an excellent perspective! I'm so glad you shared that thought.

  16. I think you're right Nicole. You've got me thinking I"ve overhead my brother and other guys talking and its not like the movies! If we wrote like they really talked a lot of girls wouldn't like books and movies as much but now that you have me thinking about it I keep thinking of funny things I"ve heard and start laughing :)