Let’s Chat about Writing Dialogue

Not surprisingly, I’ve drifted away from blogs and social media lately. I’m determined to buckle down and finish Murder Is Where the Heart Is.

Because I wrote the book so quickly during National Novel Writing Month, over five thousand words have been tossed. There is a ton of rewriting yet to do. I’ll get there. I simply need to focus.

However, there is a special reason for posting to my blog today.

I originally started blogging to chronicle my writing experiences. For that reason, I want to mark another milestone. Today is my two-year anniversary of becoming a writer.

Woo-hoo! Break out the M&M’s!

I thought it fitting to pick a writing topic for this post.

I chose dialogue for two reasons. First, I enjoy writing dialogue. Second, my blog post of September 18, 2012 has page views every day. Is Your book Dialogue Heavy has been visited more times than any of my other posts.

In that post, I expressed my discontent with a book I had read that was packed full of dialogue. I wrote: I became weary of listening in on conversations. I was relieved when there were short bursts of description or information. The story moved too quickly with nearly all of it being told in dialogue. New characters came on the scene and added to the conversation with nary an introduction made.

I still feel the same way, but I also still believe that enjoyment or dissatisfaction with the amount of dialogue in a book is ultimately the personal preference of the reader.

Let’s move on today to writing dialogue. I have a few things to share.

When I first began writing, I realized the story was playing in my mind like a movie. It was easy to write what I was seeing and hearing. It’s still like that for me most of the time.

I read several articles about dialogue, and two simple things helped me the most.
– People don’t use perfect grammar when they speak.
– People usually use contractions when they speak.

Reading my dialogue aloud helps tremendously to hear if it sounds realistic or not.

I often envision favorite television or movie actors playing out scenes. My Jo Ravens character isn’t blonde, but at times, I envision her facial expressions, manner of speaking, and even her laughter, as that of Katherine Heigl’s. It worked perfectly as I wrote the following short scene from my work in progress.

– – –

(Quick setup: Jo is at a wedding reception. The adults are avoiding her.)

I sat at a table where two young boys were playing with handheld video games. The boys were oblivious to my presence until I popped the second meatball into my mouth. One of them scowled at me.

“Hey, you got me in trouble.”

My eyes widened. I held back a smile. “I did not,” I said.

“Did too,” he said.

“Did not.”

“Did too.”

I leaned forward, stared the kid down, and asked, “How did I get you in trouble?”

“Geez, lady, once you started laughing, I started laughing, too.”

The second boy finally looked up from his game and said, “Me, too.”

The first boy finished his tale of woe. “My mom pinched me to make me stop laughing. It hurt like crazy.” He lifted his shirtsleeve to show a small bruise.

I gave him a look of sympathy and mouthed a silent, “Wow.”

“My mom gave me the death stare,” the second boy said. “That kept me from laughing.”

I pulled my lips in between my teeth and bit down, struggling to hold back laughter. I finally said, “Well, you have to admit, the helicopter was pretty funny. So was the preacher taking a dive.” I raised one eyebrow, smiled at the boys, and nodded my head to encourage them to agree with me.

The second boy laughed and said, “I know! I’ve never seen a preacher move so fast.”

The first boy put his hand over his mouth in an attempt to stifle a laugh, but a sourpuss woman quickly extinguished it for him when she tugged his arm hard enough to lift him out of his chair and whisk him away. The second boy might as well have been tugged, too, because he was gone in a flash.

– – – Image

Dialogue. It’s my favorite part of writing.

Share your best tips. What helps you write dialogue?

51 thoughts on “Let’s Chat about Writing Dialogue

  1. Oh great scene Maddie! For me, it’s a lot like what you do. I picture my characters in my head and let ‘them’ talk, not me. And it’s true, people don’t talk perfectly. Everyone talks different and I try to capture those subtle nuances in my characters speech pattern, so if they talk I don’t have to add on who said what because it becomes clear who is speaking by the WAY they talk.

    • I’m glad you like the scene. It’s by far one of the simpler in the book, but it was fun to write. Yes, those subtle nuances in speech help quite a bit. I’ve used fewer dialogue tags in my new series, and I like it.

  2. It helps me assume my characters have my winning personality when it comes to dialogue.

    Seriously, I too try and make it “natural speak”. There is a problem with that; most people don’t really speak all that well, like, you know? I mean, like, I said, ah, I said ‘say what!?’ and like she, no wait I said ‘girl, say what!?’ and she, ah, like got all in my face, you know?

    I do try to not make it overly clever (TV shows go the opposite way; perfect dialogue delivered at machine-gun speed as if it were memorized – which it is).

    As it happens, I’m running to concurrent stories which both have more dialogue than I typically use. So far, no complaints . . . then again, could be no one is reading them.

  3. Dialogue is my favorite thing to write, too. I read it aloud to see how it sounds, and often I can hear if in my head while I write it. I wish all my writing worked this way. That’s a great scene to share, Maddie!

  4. I like a fair amount of dialogue in a book. Long descriptive passages can get tiring. But you’re right; there needs to be a balance, and descriptive tags are needed with the dialogue so that the reader gets an idea of what the characters are doing while they’re talking. Most of us move around, fidget, or do things while we speak. Our characters should, too. But once again, balance is necessary. Put too much of that in, and the dialogue looks forced. Man, this writing stuff is hard…

    • I agree with you. I tend to forget the little things – like when a character fiddles with a napkin before speaking, or some other small detail that gives a scene a bit more interest. Yep, this writing stuff is hard – sometimes. 😉

  5. Congrats on your 2yr writing b-day! There’s some great advice in here too. I find I get confused while reading if there’s too much back & forth with dialogue. For me, I think the characters have minds of their own. No two stories of mine are the same. I think a lot of it plays out like some weird dream or nightmare in my head. That’s how I get it done. I can almost hear them talking as I visualize them.

    • Thank you! The writer in me popped up exactly two years ago at this very moment. It was 11:00 in the evening when I opened my first blank Word doc. 🙂

      Oh, I shudder to think of your nightmares! I am such a fraidy cat, and I am in awe of you who write horror. However, when you publish, I am going to break my rule and read your work!

      • I’m torn between Smashwords, CreateSpace, LuLu, etc. I have a lot of editing to do. It’s going to be a long haul, but I’m getting there. I just have a few other obligations to worry about first. (The munchkin has a big school meeting coming up to discuss his placement for next year. & Some tax headaches.) After all that, I can truly focus.

        • I really need to look into print this year. I’ve been putting it off, but I think I want my new series in paperback. I’ll probably use CreateSpace.

          Good luck with the big school meeting. We have tax headaches, too. It’s tough being self-employed and paying quarterly.

            • I’ve talked with tax people at the state and federal level at least four times over the years. In every instance, they were kind and helpful – even when I made a mistake and had to pay a fee.

              I use an accountant. He’s worth the money I pay him (which isn’t much), and I have peace of mind when my taxes are filed.

              • I do something similar. I just have a problem from something way back in 2008 that I thought was taken care of last year but apparently not. I wish it was simple. Oh well, there are worse things in life. lol

                On a happier note, I look forward to your new book when it arrives. 😀

  6. I so agree with you Maddie. Simple words are the best. When I read a book, I want simple. If I have to stop and look words up on every page just to understand what’s happening, it takes me out of the story and I’m going to stop reading. I keep simple words in my books also for that very reason. If readers want to be educated, they’ll read nonfiction or text books, not fun stories.

    • Sometimes I’ll read a book, and it feels as though a thesaurus co-wrote the book. You’re right – it definitely takes you out of the story.

      In my last book, it was suggested to me that my main character should scamper in one scene instead of run. In the published version, my character ran through the yard. The squirrels can do the scampering. 🙂

    • Thank you! I looked for a cake in the kitchen, but alas, there was none. I settled for a bowl of cereal.

      Dialect is tough. Even little things can be distracting. I have that old-timer investigator in my new series, and even though I have him dropping some of his ‘ings (nothin’, givin’, etc.), I don’t want him to drop all of them. It’s distracting. He also says “ya” occasionally, but he also says you. I want to give him some distinction, but I hear you, Guap – jarring people out of the story is definitely something to avoid.

      I had to Google anti-hero. I’m such a dunce sometimes. I’ll be working on that and get back to you. 😉

  7. “I have two women sitting in a car right now, and I have no idea what they are going to do next. I wish one of them would speak and tell me.”

    I saw them a few minutes ago. They are parked at a Sonic Drive-in, and I think the one with green streaked blond hair is telling you, while using a napkin to get some Strawberry CreamSlush, like off her upper lip, to let them drive away from the two idiot men sitting in the car next to them, who are doing lame impersonations of Fozzie Bear and Kermit saying ‘Chili Cheese Pretzel Dog’ real fast for about the last twenty minutes; like they be surfin on a rocket*.

    See, who said that you can not educate, interject color, and have a real run-on sentence dialogue.
    * The period of time right after you smoke and feel really high. Taken from the 2004 soundtrack by the French duo Air.

  8. Happy Anniversary, Maddie! 😀

    I love this scene as it’s so well written and I can ‘see’ it.

    I also read my dialogue out loud and sometimes I think – ‘hey – no one says it like that!’ And I rewrite 😉

  9. Fun scene – and enjoyable read.

    I’m a speech-language pathologist by training/profession, so I’ve been drilled to tune in to what people say and how it’s said. Hours of transcribing actual recorded conversations give one a good feel for real dialogue.

    • Hours of transcribing conversations – I can see where that would be very helpful with dialogue. Not that I want to do it ;-), but I can see where it would be good for dialogue. Thanks for reading my little scene!

    • Hi Robin! Are you blogging again? It’s so nice to see you! I think of you often and wonder where Paige is and how she is getting along.

      I’m doing great! Still writing and having fun. Yes, it’s good to write down what the crazy voices in your head are saying. Best dialogue ever! 🙂

      • I think you mean Amanda, right? Our youngest is Paige. Amanda will graduate from the Defense Language School in Monterey (where she is learning Arabic) in March. Then off to Cryptology school in Arizona and then her first duty station will be Ft. Hood.

        Glad to hear you are well and cranking out those books!

        • Yes, I did mean Amanda. (sheepish grin) Although our granddaughter’s middle name is Paige, so that may be why Paige was on my mind.

          I continue to be amazed by all that Amanda is accomplishing. I hope that you will occasionally give updates via your blog. I know everyone fell in love with her when you posted previously.

          Are you almost done searching for that stroganoff?! I’m so looking forward to reading your book. I know you have a lot of fans waiting. Also, I’ve had a lot of people disappear mysteriously via my follow list, and I think you’re one of them! I’ll be over shortly to push the button – again!

  10. Being able to visualise your story like a movie is so awesome, Maddie. And unique. A skill to be envied. And you’re right, the way that a character speaks and his mannerisms differentiate him (or her) from the other characters.
    Dialogue heavy stories should be plays, don’t you think? Having said that, I must admit that if I’m interested in what’s happening I might skip some of the top heavy descriptions to get back into the dialogue. But (and I only have that one abysmal failure hiding in the bottom drawer) I do know that unlike real life (or sometimes like real life) dialogue needs to move the story forward so that once you’ve done reading, you should be able to look back at something somebody said and say ‘oh, yeah’ I should have seen that coming.
    Know that you’re busy, Maddie, and have no time to write new posts right now, but I was glad to see this one waiting for me when I checked your blog out for the umpteenth time.
    PS. Happy anniversary. 🙂

    • HI Mary! I’ve started an email to you at least twice in the past week. However, it was a week of distractions, and I was never able to finish. I’ll write soon.

      Yes, plays should be dialogue heavy. I’d like to try my hand at writing a screenplay one day. Have you ever written one?

      I think it’s entirely possible that the genre I’ve been reading lately lends itself to more (even excessive) dialogue. I might look into that.

      • Maddie, don’t worry. Your priorities should be getting that editing out of the way. Then you can write me and tell me what a clever little Vegemite you’ve been. 🙂

  11. I love writing dialogue, but sometimes have to remind myself to end a conversation. I just want to go on and on but remember that dialogue should serve a purpose.

    Loved your scene. I heard it in Katherine Heigl’s voice. Can’t wait to read the rest!

    • Yes, ending a conversation can be hard. We chat in real life for hours on end, and I could easily have my characters do so. I like to put normal aspects of life into dialogue, but definitely try to move the story along. Thanks for reading my scene and seeing/hearing what I was. 🙂

  12. Congrats and woohoo on your anniversary!!! BTW….I finished your book a couple of nights ago and am so anxious to read more!! Excellent!! Again…I love how you wrote me into your plot….hehehe. Am gonna have to buy a pole now. 🙂 hugs ♥ paula

    • LOL! I’ve always liked the name Paula, so I’m not surprised I chose to use it. You’ve had songs written for you. 🙂 I’m beyond thrilled that you enjoyed the new book. Thank you so much for reading it – and for letting me know you liked it.

      P.S. – I’ve put the butter on the Bunn about half a dozen times now. Our kitchen is so cold, it would never come to (better-than) room temperature if I didn’t. 😉

    • Oh, if you only knew how much we envied you! Your life experiences would fill a library!

      I know you are on the road again. I’m hoping to set time aside this weekend to catch up. Hope you are well.

  13. Yay, happy anniversary! I actually don’t remember when I became a writer. Do you start counting from the day you published your novel or the day you wrote your first story? Hmm, you might’ve given me an idea for a blog post. 😉

    That said, I too enjoy simple dialogue and the occasional witty banter. When it gets too heavy I just automatically lose interest!

    • Thank you, Zen. I was so glad to rescue you. 😉

      I started counting the days from the time I sat down to try my hand at writing a short story. It was 11:00 p.m. on February 8, 2012. It turned into a book. 🙂 Glad you gleaned an idea for a blog post!

  14. You know I think this is one of the hardest things for me- writing the way people actually talk. Thats one of the reasons I took up blogging. Trying to help myself learn to write in my own “voice” rather than write the way we are taught in school. This post is really helpful in portraying that!

  15. I think I’m learning more from you than an entire term in creative writing at uni. One thing we notice here in the UK is that all these American kids shows have teenagers with an amazing vocabulary. I don’t know if US kids are amazing in that way, but here our kids tend to just talk like normal people, not like they swallowed the dictionary. Was it Dawson’s Creek . . . I think it was . . where they just spouted convoluted spiel all the time. 🙂

  16. Two years?? That’s all?? And ya just jumped in and started?? Amazing! You’ve got a nice smooth style, and I woulda guessed you started writing when you were a 3-month-old baby. OK, a 6-month-old baby… : )

    Re dialogue vs. descriptive: I, too, believe there has to be a good balance. Not on every page, certainly, but overall. Unrelieved blocks of either are wearisome. Successful books have a nice flow and keep the reader engaged. That’s why I’m a big Maddie Cochere fan… : )

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