Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Weeding Your Manuscript: Pesky Dialogue Problems

I love dialogue and I love reading books that start with dialogue. I'll admit that if there is no dialogue in the first three pages, I'm likely to put a book down.

In Erin Healy's 2011 ACFW session "Sometimes Its Better to Show Than Tell", Erin shared one of co-writer Ted Dekker's scene secrets. He never starts with a character alone. It helps to keep his scenes moving insanely fast. I have read two Dekker novels and can vouch these are definitely up all night reads.

As we edit our manuscripts, working on dialogue can really make a difference in the manuscript. Good dialogue  can change the pace, better reveal our characters, up the conflict, and in general build interest. All novels center in some way on the relationship between others, just as relationships with God and others make up the core of our everyday lives.

Here are some dialogue tips that have helped me along the way:

1) Listen, listen, listen. 

Listen to people in various situations. Force yourself to slow down. 

Pay attention to the local differences, think of the old "coke"/"soda" debate. There are so many subtle things that we ignore. Note the way your Canadian friend's accent changes when she talks to her British relatives. Accent, phrases, slang all change.

2) What isn't said is crucial.

Is your character a blabbermouth apt to share everything on his or her mind?

Are they introspective? They may not tend to share a lot of crucial information in the dialogue. 

Note that what we do and what we don't say is very different depending on whom we are conversing. Does your character trust the other person in the room? How is that going to affect their conversation?

Think about the levels of relationship between each of the characters. How will it affect their interactions? 

How will a main character talk to a domineering father? A loving husband? A distant ex-spouse? Their childhood best friend?

3) Consider dialect very carefully.

Have you ever put down a book because of dialect so unrealistic it made you groan in agony? 

Even worse, I've read books where the dialect is very stereotyped to the point where I found it offensive. Even racist.

Yet there are other times where I have found the dialect was a liability in providing likeability for the characters. 

I recently heard an author say that dialect should be used more and more sparingly as the novel continues because the reader will self-correct as they are reading. They will create a proper dialect that fits the character in their own mind. 

4) Reader's theatre.

Ask a spouse or family member to read the dialogue with you.

Quickest way to find errors, in my opinion. 

Did you start cringing? Time to change that line. Often its a simple case of removing a few words here and there. Often we speak in simple short sentences, but we over articulate when putting it on the page.

A few simple changes can make a world of difference in weeding out those pesky dialogue errors.

Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to dialogue (in other authors or in your own manuscripts)? What has helped you in improving your own dialogue?

Julia enjoys writing women's fiction whenever she can find a chair free of smushed peanut butter sandwiches and lego blocks. She is a wife and homeschooling mama of two littles. She also enjoys reading and reviewing books for The Title Trakk, a Christian review site.  


Keli Gwyn said...

Great tips, Julia. In my early days, my dialogue was Dull with a capital D. Contest judges pointed out that my characters all sounded the same. Um, yeah. They sounded a lot like me. *blushes*

That wasn't my only problem. When I took a good look at my dialogue, I saw that my characters used proper English, which probably stemmed from my days working as an editor. They also used big words. Too big in many cases. They didn't use many fragments. They finished all their sentences and rarely interrupted one another. Can you say boring and unrealistic?

I spent some time reading the work of some of the great authors out there and studying their dialogue. I read blog posts and craft books. And I eavesdropped--er, make that listened in--on conversations of those around me. I even started watching TV with the subtitles on, so I could see the dialogue.

When I received the endorsements on my debut novel and one of them complimented me on my dialogue, I rejoiced. It proves that even a dialogue-challenged writer like me can learn a thing or two. :-)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Excellent post. Fabulous points. One of my greatest past times is listening to others speak. The wealth of material, oh my.
I will share my favorite said by a co-worker, which I plan to include in some work:
"My sister fell out of the crazy tree and hit every branch on the way down."
The first part wasn't the zing, it was the second part. A ridiculous visual played in my mind. Who wouldn't laugh?
Listen to others=#1

Lindsay Harrel said...

My WIP has two main characters: one is a teenager, and one is her mother. So, yeah, they're not going to talk the same!

You make a good point about dialect. I think it's hard NOT to stereotype, though. I mean, if someone is from the South, he/she will probably say "ya'll", right? Is this a stereotype (because not EVERYONE in the South says it) or is it just a likelihood? Interesting thing to consider. Thanks, Julia!

Jeanne T said...

Fun "dialogue" here today. :)

KELI, I so appreciate your sharing what you did in learning to write dialogue better. I did some of those in my early drafts, but I'm learning to let my characters interrupt each other.

MARY, I laughed out loud at that one! Falling out of the crazy tree and hitting every branch on the way down. :) Smiling!

LINDSAY--here's taking the Southern dialect a little further. There are dialects and accents that differ by state. Or so I was informed when we spent a year in Alabama. Oh, and there's "y'all," which is when you're speaking to one person, and "all y'all" when you are speaking to more than one person. :)

Julia, I loved this post and I'm holding onto it. I feel like I have so much to learn in writing better dialog.
I have a question for you: if you have scenes where the character is alone, what can you do for dialog? For example, my hero is making a fix on his house while his wife (heroine) is out doing something. I'd love any ideas you can offer. :)

Ava Walker Jenkins said...

Great reminders, Julia. I especially like the listening suggestion. I had to inventory my own dialogue for a few days to realize I rarely address my husband or children by their given names. Yet, my characters were doing this all the time . . . at least they used to. Not anymore.

Kelli, thanks for the reminders to be less formal with dialogue. I sometimes find in revisions I've given a character a mouthful of English comp words, that in all reality, the character probably wouldn't even know how to pronounce properly. :-)

Julia M. Reffner said...


Thanks so much for your insights. I always love when people are willing to share from their mistakes, because let's face it most of us make the same ones. Embarassed to admit to it, but yes, eavesdropping in an appropriate context is so helpful. I wanted to mention it actually, but wanted to make sure I wasn't advocating it in the wrong way. I so relate to your struggles as an editor. As a library person I have the same struggle.


Love, love it. You must use it. I can imagine tone probably added to the humor in this case, too.


You raise a great question here. Because a stereotype usually developed because it was TRUE in many cases. So I guess we just need to think about each individual case maybe.

Julia M. Reffner said...


I agree, great dialogue. Thanks for participating!

That's a great question. I would say maybe up the action in those sections to balance for the lack of dialogue. Anyone else have any suggestions? I love getting a dialogue going in the comments (pun intended, sadly).


Yes, yes, this is such a common mistake that I have to watch for. Its so easy to put in names, especially if you're trying to avoid "he said/she saids."

Nancy Kimball said...

Jeanne, give him a "Wilson." If its not dialogue for the sake of dialogue and you don't want to go heavy on internal monologue, Wilsons are great. In the Tom Hanks movie Castaway, we all remember that volleyball Wilson.
It was a great device to solve the same problem.
For your WIP, if its a home repair, you could cleverly work in one of the tools (he hits his thumb with the hammer or head with the wrench and goes off on said tool and what the real problem is bleeds into the dialogue, etc.) Or if he's in the attic and finds an old picture with a backstory character and dialogues with it. That's all I can think on the fly.

A contest also helped me strip first names in dialogue. And listening to those around you are GREAT for one-liners and picking up authentic dialogue. Here's a few of my gems gleaned around the office.

(My boss's little league team lost their first game. You need the context for this one to work.)
I've got a bunch of paste-eaters in the outfield.

It's the low-hanging fruit.

Isn't that like bringing sand to the beach?

Keli, its easy for authors to turn their characters into sock poppets without realizing it. So glad your focused study paid off. I like the idea of watching TV with the captions on.

Angie Dicken said...

Great post, Julia. I am beginning to love dialogue more and more as I write and read. I used to be lazy...just wanting to tell what happened, or what was said! My biggest pet peeve is the dialect thing. Especially set in England or historical times...it totally throws me out of the novel when a modern day phrase is used!

Jeanne T said...

Julia and Nancy, thanks for the great suggestions. I'm going to think on that and figure out how to incorporate. ;)

Cindy R. Wilson said...

These are good tips! I was just working on my story and wondering if I was using too much dialogue. I just need to heed this advice and make sure my dialogue is appropriate and makes sense for who's speaking.

One thing I always do when writing dialogue is put what first comes to mind. When my character's speak, I try to write the dialogue quickly and off instinct to make it sound as natural and close to real dialogue as possible.

Again, great tips!

Julia M. Reffner said...


Great tip about making a "Wilson"! I love it! I'm going to remember this for future.

Love that paste eaters line, BTW! That's a definite keeper!


(Nodding head in agreement). Yes that drives me nuts in historicals and Amish novels when they use modern expressions.


I think Nancy's tip is golden. Hope you find something that works for your scene. Its easy for me to get caught up in what works for other authors, but I know God will show you just the right thing for your specific story.


That's a great tip, writing off instinct. Its so hard to find the balance, isn't it?

Unknown said...

Many dialogues I read clarify something. They reveal a plot, give meaning to an event, explain a situation, reinforce what emotions have already shown. When I read these dialogues backwards I notice they often are very straightforward, are perfect in a sense.

How often do you have a 'perfect' conversation? Without any misunderstanding or moments when you have to repeat yourself? How often do people always allow each other to finish their sentence? And how often does time allow you to really finish a conversation?

I love dialogues that make a clever use of repetitions, misunderstandings or interruptions and that sometimes leave me more confused than I was when I entered a conversation.

I wish there were more imperfect dialogues.

(or maybe I should read different books)

Julia M. Reffner said...


Very good point about the lack perfect conversations IRL.