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Let’s talk about writing/marketing. I’ll be discussing dialogue.
Welcome to Blue Honor Blog from the pages of Ann Popp’s writings on marketing tips.
Dialogue writing is a place where a lot of authors get hung up. If you’re not getting hung up, then you’re not understanding how dialogue can make or break your novel, short story or any kind of writing. It’s the nuggets of speech within the text that incite the movie in your head, because it so closely resembles the filmic form. Don’t assume that you just know how to do it right without getting feedback from the world at large.
Let’s tackle the three main concepts, or basic pointers, to get your head in the game, so you can start writing some compelling dialogue:
1. Dialogue should not resemble prose.
Dialogue sits within prose but should never be confused with the same type of ‘speech’ and expectations, grammatically speaking, that prose is bound by. Of course you will apply basic grammar, from conjunctions to contractions, punctuation to possessions. That is not the essence of what I am expressing here. The proper English format of a sentence can largely be ignored, unless you are dealing with someone who needs to have perfect speech for some angle of their characterization: their IQ is exemplary, they’re a computer, they’re an alien, they just learned English from a computer or an alien, etc.
Don’t forget your pacing. Dialogue pacing will be separate from your prose’s pacing, but it will also tend to augment it in some fashion: speedier/slower echo of the narrative pace; contrast.
Speech is flexible, not rigid with rules. Failing to measure the flexibility of human speech will give you stiff dialogue–prosaic speech. It doesn’t make them sound period appropriate to speak perfect English. They sound rather unapproachable, stiff and…ridiculous. It makes it hard to read them. That leads me to the next point.
2. Dialogue is conversation–human (or insert species here) speech.
The dialogue you are writing between conversing partners is human speech, in most cases. Conversation is dynamic! In my upcoming work, there are inter-species dialogues, which require a special bit of attention which I will get to in a moment.
As stated above, to avoid stiff dialogue, you want to write speech as you would expect to hear it. Further than that, you must make certain that your character would speak in such a manner. Someone from Missouri isn’t going to be all Brooklyn about it. Youtube is a great resource for listening. Yes, Listening! You need to listen to conversation, a lot of conversation, before you can accurately write it. No one quite speaks like you do, so your characters shouldn’t all sound like the author might speak. They’re supposed to be their own people, so they jump off the page.
- Figure out where they are from.
- Figure out their background: education level, gender, race (are they even human?), who they hang out with, their interests, hurts and experiences.
- Figure out who they want to be–because who we want to be can influence how we portray ourselves to others, and much of that portrayal is done in speech.
Another great tool to take advantage of, outside of Youtube, is film. Film is visual and auditory. It can help you write better in a lot of ways. Trust me on this, I have a masters in screenwriting, and that education has helped my writing immensely. Films rely on a lot of dialogue to advance the story and to create character. Most actors apply the bullet points above to their characters while portraying them. So, watch them work this out on screen, and it will help you attend your own characters in the same manner. I bet you never thought acting was part of the requisite of writing? You’d be surprised all the things that make you a better writer!
3. There is a lot more thought put into it than you might imagine–research.
As you can see by the bullet points listed under point #2, there is a lot to writing dialogue that has to be considered. You’ll need to sit down and do some research. It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing, research the topic. I recommended Youtube above, they also have documentaries on areas around the world, so in addition to listening to people’s dialects via their videos, you can learn about their culture. The things they say will be influenced by their culture. For example, the fact that Coke means soda or pop in certain areas of the United States–you’ll have to order a Pepsi or Cola; orange pop, lemonade in Britain…it goes on and on. So dialect is the sound and regional is the terms. Learn both, or your character is going to be a phony and you don’t want that…unless these misses are on purpose, a clue in a mystery or thriller about their real background.
Aside from watching film to inform your writing, you might want to attend a screenwriting course or get some books on screenwriting. This won’t make you a script writer overnight, but it can give you some tips and tricks of a trade that relies heavily on speech. Learning to write movies, if that is your interest, is going to take a lot of time and effort–as much time and effort as you’ve put into writing prose and poetry. It’s a whole other animal and isn’t so easily accessed by the novel writer. It is rare for a novelists to go on to write film, especially adaptations of their own work.
Writing dialogue can be very rewarding. If you chose to write dialects, be consistent. Most editors will try to convince you to steer clear of this. I will not. I think using dialect appropriately will deepen the experience for the reader. I have used dialect in books and will continue to do so as appropriate. Don’t be afraid, just be consistent. Feel how the dialect is phonetically spelled so you can lead the reader to ‘hearing’ it correctly in their head, they will hear the correct meaning okay.
Excerpt from Blue Honor by K. Williams, published by Booktrope Publishing…
“I wanted to speak to you about something serious, Evan.” Emily stepped back. Her eyes held no affection, and she held him at arm’s length.
“I thought I understood that,” Evan replied.
Unlike his sisters, Emily did not make a display without good reason. If something was wrong, everyone knew it was serious.
Evan fixed his cadet hat under his arm and moved away from the church wall. He offered his elbow. Emily reluctantly looped her arm in his and they walked toward the back of the church.
“I guess now is as good a time as any,” Emily said. “Daddy’s concerned about Michael. He’s refused to continue his studies. He’s done with basics now, you know.”
“Is he?” Evan sounded unconvinced of the news. “Time certainly goes fast.” Emily, looking intently at something over his shoulder, faked a laugh and returned to him. Evan chuckled, dutifully moved wherever she guided, anywhere away from prying eyes.
“Don’t worry about Mike, Em. He’s got enough smarts to do better than this old place. What about you? You still reading all those books?”
Emily cocked her head to the side, half laughing at the statement, “this isn’t about me. Michael’s smart but he isn’t smart enough to realize it.”
Evan grimaced, his black gaze shifting over the lawn and over the people on the other side of the church. They walked in the opposite direction. He tensed. When his eyes met hers, there was a question in them. The longer they spent in secret conference, the more the townspeople believed the rumors.
“You see, that’s just it,” Emily continued. “He thinks he needs to stay on the farm for Daddy’s sake, so he can take over the dairy. To learn it before Daddy passes on. God forbid.” She groaned dramatically.
“Well, that is foolish.” Evan frowned. “He must realize there’s a whole world out there. Michael’ll waste himself staying home.”
“That’s what Daddy told him,” Emily said sadly. She wilted nervously under his scrutiny. “I wonder if you’d talk to him, Ev. You going to school and all.”
Evan smiled broadly. “For my favorite girl?” His tone sounded as though he meant only to appease her. He pinched a bit of her skirt between his gloved fingers and lifted it slightly. He laughed. “When did you grow up, Em? You look gorgeous. I’ll have to marry you now for sure. Just to keep you honest from meeting me back here—alone.” He pulled her to him.
“Evan Howell. I’m not grown. Stop teasing,” Emily blushed. “You’re just flattering me to get out of it. Haven’t you met any nice girls at school yet?” Emily pushed him away as roughly as one of the boys.
“Lot of girls, yes. But I don’t think they’re what you’d call nice,” he said, scratching his neck and reddening with embarrassment.
“Evan Howell! Well, now that I know this, you’d best do as I ask, before I tell your mother!” Emily gasped.
They stared at each other and then fell to laughter.
“I know I can count on you.” Emily hugged him.
“And the trap is laid.” Evan squeezed her back, and kissed the side of her head. “Yeah, sure you can count on me—for what?”
Evan pretended to forget. “I already told you I’m not letting them see us married, though it pains me something terrible to let you go, seeing you now.”
“Talk to Michael,” Emily said.
“Do you really think it’s wise to say a thing to Mike? I mean—your mother an’ all.”
“Evan,” Emily breathed. “I waited to see you all morning for this one tiny favor.”
“All right—all right. Let me think it through first.” He waved his hand.
“Evan,” Emily said.
“He’s ornery as a badger, Em. Especially if he’s got his mind made up.” Evan whined.
“You’re afraid of him? A boy with less training and education than yourself?” she laughed.
Evan grimaced. He was capable of withstanding her manipulations if he wanted to. He took her arm and once more escorted her, but this time toward the oak where their parents were. He did not think it right to change a man’s mind once made. So, he played stubborn, not allowing their friendship to misguide him right into a family dispute.
Emily glared and blinked her frustration away when it produced no concessions. The man was a stone, but more a jackass scared of a little woman and her boy. As she pictured this, her mouth curled into a grim line. She choked back the giddiness it brought, covering her mouth with a fist and clearing her throat.
“I’m not afraid,” Evan insisted.
“Fat baby,” Emily mumbled with a smirk.
The dialogue above elicits a number of reactions and understandings from the reader. They know who these two are, Em (Em) and Evan (Ev), old friends and confidants. The readers sees the importance to Emily, the playfulness of Evan, the lasting bond despite being parted so long. The tension between them is also present, hinting at social expectations on the pair. Emily is brash. Evan is confident. His education shines through despite his economic standing, attached to his family name, but no so much so that it overwhelms where he comes from..and so on.
Make your dialogue work for your writing, not against it, by taking the time to consider the points above. It can be the make or break with readers.
I hope this blog on dialogue writing has been helpful to you as writers, and eye-opening to readers. Please be sure to check out PJ Fiala’s blog on Character Creation at PJ Fiala, Romance on Wheels.
PJ Fiala is originally from Missouri. She moved to Wisconsin with her family when she was 13 years old, city kids learning to farm. The farm started out with 28 rescue cows (they were adopted from the Humane Society who took them from abusive circumstances). With all the hard work and the deep winters, Wisconsin was a hard sell until PJ met her husband. They have four children and three grand children. The pair enjoy riding their motorcycles, on which they meet new places and visit places new and old.
PJ comes from a long line of veterans: “My grandfather, father, brother, two of my sons, and one daughter-in-law are all veterans. Needless to say, I am proud to be an American and proud of the service my amazing family has given.”
Learn more about her books on Amazon.com.
Ann Popp has lived in a lot of places, but says she’s partial to the Southern Texas area, and has plans to retire there someday. She currently lives in North Carolina with her husband, youngest daughter, and her dog Duke. Popp is a romance novelist who enjoys the happy ever after’s to make others smile. About writing, Popp says, “I have always wanted to write books and put my own spin on things. I am now at a time in my life where that makes sense for me.” When she isn’t writing, she works full-time in higher education. Also an avid reader, she states that romance remains her favorite of all genres.
Return to Ann Popp’s Blog.
Check out Ann Popp’s books on Amazon.com.