Thursday, September 24, 2015

Knowing Yourself as a Writer

Today's blog is all about dialogue. Have you ever reread your manuscript and gotten that blah feeling from the dialogue? Maybe the character interactions feel flat or forced, or simply unrealistic. Dialogue is a big deal-breaker for me whenever I'm reading a new book. I don't know about you, but if the dialogue feels cheesy, I usually won't stick with the book.

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So how can we avoid these pitfalls and keep readers hooked?

1) Avoid making dialogue too realistic. I think we all do this when we start to write fiction, but it's a habit we need to nix. Example...

"Hi, how are you?" She held the phone receiver to her ear tightly.
"Fine, how about you?"
"I'm okay."
"Yeah? Just okay?"
"Yeah, you know how it is. What's new?" She broke a piece of a chocolate chip cookie and dropped it in her mouth.
"Nothing. You?"
"Not much. Oh, except my job at the Godiva store."
"What about it?"
"I got caught stealing the truffles. They fired me."

All we really care about is the fact that she got caught eating truffles on the job and was fired, right? Obviously this is a silly example, but the reason we start caring at the end of this interaction is because that's the first time something actually happens in the conversation. If your dialogue feels flat, try going through and slashing all the extras. Yes, your word count might take a hit, but the conversations between your characters will be so much deeper, fuller, and more interesting.

2) Always end with a hook. Any time you're finishing a chapter or a section, cut the conversation short before it's resolved. This is my trick for hooking the readers to (hopefully) lead them into the next chapter. Think about it. When you're reading a book and it keeps you up into the middle of the night, why does it have that effect? Because you need to know what comes next, right?

Here's an example from one of my favorite books, Daring Chloe by Laura Jensen Walker. The chapter starts, "At 1:33 a.m., nine hours and twenty-seven minutes before my wedding ceremony, my fiance dumped me. By text message."

The chapter goes on to end with this hook:

Slamming the art book shut, I sprang from my seat. "He'll be praying for me? He'd better pray for his risk-taking, dare-devil friend, 'cause when I find him, I'm gonna kill him. Bet he won't find that boring."

Tess grabbed her literary purse. "Come on, Chloe. You're going on your honeymoon. And I'm coming with you, so let's go buy a bikini. I'm thinking red thong."

Who doesn't want to read the rest of the book with a setup like that? This is a chick lit novel, but the same principle applies to historical romance, suspense, etc. Give us the setup of the conflict, but just before you give the resolution, take the carrot away and tease the reader into turning one more page. Works like a charm. It's worked on me many times!

3) Make your dialogue character-specific. We should be able to tell which of your characters is speaking just based off the dialogue, even if you didn't use tags. This is something I struggled with when I first started writing fiction. But I've learned that if you take time to really develop your characters' personalities, the dialogue will shine so much more than if your characters are all coming across a bit vanilla. Work on the whole package. Yes, your plot should be fabulous. But who cares if the characters don't tug our hearts? Make them individuals. Really work on their personalities, and your dialogue will come alive. I have one character in particular in my last book who constantly surprised me with the things that came out of her mouth... it was really like I had no control over what she was going to say next, and that made her so fun to write!

4) Pay attention to pacing. When in doubt, make it snappy. No one likes to listen to someone drone on and on in real life. It's even worse if that person is fictional. Be conscious of your pacing when it comes to dialogue, especially if you're incorporating humor. Yes, some characters will be very chatty, but be intentional if you're going to write long diatribes. For instance, you may have a minor character who likes to hear herself talk, and the other characters are always cutting her off. A situation like that can work nicely. Otherwise, readers generally like the back-and-forth dialogue provides. When it doubt, especially if you're writing a male POV, make something short and sweet. Not only will it make your dialogue flow nicely, but it will also help your pacing as you work to clip off unnecessary details. Then readers will know where to put their focus rather than feeling weighed down by a lot of extra information.

What tips do you have for writing dialogue? Do you enjoy writing dialogue, or do you prefer the more narrative components of story writing?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Robin E. Mason said...

one thing that irks me when reading dialogue (or watching on TV or in a movie) is character explaining details that should be know to the people speaking. i handle this by stepping out of the conversation to insert a quick explanation, such as: "conversation..." Dr. Bishop was her psychologist. "continue conversation..." doesn't always work so neatly, but it helps me at least.

Jeanne Takenaka said...

These are great tips, Ashley! Dialog is not one of my strengths, so I appreciate your comments. Susan May Warren recommends using various zingers in dialog to keep it snappy. Unexpected things that come out of the characters' mouths. I'm taking your tips to heart as I revise my book. :)

Ashley Clark said...

Robin, I HATE that too! Good suggestion!

Jeanne, I love that advice! Thanks for sharing!

Laura C. Brandenburg said...

Thanks for the reminders, Ashley. I've been trying to polish my manuscript, and last night I spent over an hour trying to re-work a dialogue scene with one of my main characters and three other 'cast characters.' I feel like I don't know them as well as I know my main characters, so I struggle with not making their responses cheesy.