Deb Joanne talks about, like, you know, dialogue.

Let me start by saying I love writing dialogue. I’ve been told I’m good at it and have a good ear, so let’s just go with that and assume it’s true.  But when I stop to think about writing dialogue and what it takes, I’m kind of stumped.  I mean, it’s a great topic for us writers to talk about (ha ha – talk about!), because there aren’t many books without any dialogue and I think that’s on purpose: we are humans and we crave interaction with other people. (Even in that chunk of time during Cast Away when Tom Hanks is completely alone, he still has conversations with Wilson).  We need dialogue to know what a character is thinking, to reveal what’s inside his head, both his conscious thoughts and sometimes, more importantly, his unconscious ones.  Think of how much we learn from things unsaid or by how things are said.  Dialogue can be so revealing of events AND characters. I think that’s what I love about it.  But I know a lot of people struggle with it.  I, myself, struggle with scenes with more than two people in them—so hard to keep track of who is speaking without putting onerous tags on every line!  But that said, what I’m going to focus on here is the mechanics of speech as it relates to writing.

Because dialogue in writing isn’t just straight transcription of people talking.  I think this is a surprise to new writers, but to illustrate, imagine two music-loving twelve-year-olds talking at a wedding about the band:

“Ugh, I, like, totally can’t, you know, believe anyone would, like, want to play a wedding gig,” Alex said.

I snorted. “Uh…like, you know. We haven’t even, like, started our band yet and like you know, oh my God, already you’re, like, too good for weddings?”

“Uh, yeah, you know. Like, no weddings or bar mitzvahs for us, my dear Lilah. Oh my God, you know. We’re going big time, you know what I mean?”

I had my doubts since we could barely play, still needed instruments, and hadn’t even had our own bat mitzvah’s yet, and so far it was only the two of us. Our dreams of having a band were still just that: dreams.

“Oh my God, you know, you’ve got quite an, uh, you know, inflamed ego, like, for someone who doesn’t even, like, own her own guitar.”

Alex held the cool glass up to her forehead and rolled it back and forth. It was hard to believe it was only May. 

“Like, whatever, we’re going to be huge, if you know what I mean.  And the guys are, like, going to be all over us, you know. Oh my God, like, you watch, you know.  We will, like, get to choose our boyfriends from the cream of the crop.”

If you’ve spent any time with kids, you know that they use a lot of extraneous words and phrases like what I’ve written above (okay, so maybe it’s an exaggeration, but not by a lot, and I’m guessing you get what I’m talking about). It’s exhausting to read and you really want to keep this kind of kidspeak to a minimum, to spare your reader having to muddle through the extra words to figure out what your characters are actually saying  (I would say the same for accents, too.  Diana Gabaldon uses a Scottish accent so beautifully in OUTLANDER that it’s not at all an impediment to reading, but she uses it very sparingly and I have to think this is a very conscious thing.  I would warn against using heavy accents as they can be very hard for a reader to understand and will take them out of the story in way you want to avoid).

Here’s the same scene as the one above, as it actually occurs in SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE:

“Ugh, I can’t believe anyone would want to play a wedding gig,” Alex said.

I snorted. “We haven’t even started our band yet and already you’re too good for weddings?”

“Uh, yeah. No weddings or bar mitzvahs for us, my dear Lilah. We’re going big time.”

I had my doubts since we could barely play, still needed instruments, and hadn’t even had our own bat mitzvah’s yet, and so far it was only the two of us. Our dreams of having a band were still just that: dreams.

“You’ve got quite an inflamed ego for someone who doesn’t even own her own guitar.”

Alex held the cool glass up to her forehead and rolled it back and forth. It was hard to believe it was only May. 

“We’re going to be huge.  And the guys are going to be all over us. You watch.  We will get to choose our boyfriends from the cream of the crop.”

Sure, kids don’t speak this concisely, like, ever, but we get a sense of the voice from the tone of speech and the choice of words without bogging down the dialogue with extra words, so it’s not exactly accurate, but it works.

So tell us, do you like writing dialogue? Do you find it a challenge or hear it in your head as you write?

9 thoughts on “Deb Joanne talks about, like, you know, dialogue.

  1. I love writing dialogue. When my characters start to speak to each other I feel like an eavesdropper taking dictation. So much fun!

    You make an excellent point, though — dialogue in books shouldn’t duplicate the way people really talk. That would get annoying to readers fast. Good dialogue is only representative of the way people speak. “Realistic” without being real, because real speech tends to ramble. I guess writing dialogue is kind of like Photoshopping a picture before putting it in a magazine — looks like real life, only enhanced. 😉

    Diana is a great example of a writer who hits the sweet spot with her dialect.

  2. Great lesson in dialogue Joanne! I think so many people write “like, you know” dialogue and defend it by saying “that’s how people speak!” The trick, of course, is to make it sound like people speak without actually writing the exact words as people speak them. No easy feat! (I thnk you do this beautifully by including the one “Uh, yeah” above.)

    So nice to get a taste of the Small Medium at Large!

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