“Three-ways are complicated” and other expert advice on dialogue

Calling Debut Authors! Now Accepting Applications for the 2018 Debutante Ball! Read this post to learn more. Hurry! THE DEADLINE IS JULY 28! The paperback edition of SMALL ADMISSIONS releases today, and I have been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned as a writer this year. Like, how have I grown and improved? In…
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Making Tons of Money Writing Fiction? Or “The Case of the Missing Advance”

CAST OF CHARACTERS Scott: An accountant. Hair parted neatly to one side, slightly awkward, mid-thirties, three-piece suit. Anne: A writer. Early fifties, wearing cute jeans and a jacket, an expensive but worn handbag. Her roots need attention. Scott sits at a desk in his generic office. Anne knocks on the door.   Anne: Hello?   Scott: Hi,…
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And The Winner is … My top 5 reads? Impossible.

Best books ever? This is going to be so easy! The Art of the Deal The Bible Just kidding No, I definitely do NOT find this easy. Who came up with such a terrible blog topic? I did? Well, shit. There are so many books I love – and for so many different reasons – I’m…
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Deb Susan’s Dialogue Has a Limp and an Eyepatch

In his book, Save the Cat!, Author and screenwriter Blake Snyder advised all writers to give every character “a limp and an eyepatch” – an easily identifiable characteristic that sets the character apart from all the others in the scene.

I love this advice, and take it to heart – and I use it with dialogue too.

When creating characters, I write a journal entry in each character’s voice – a free  writing exercise in which I let the character tell me anything he or she wants to say. (If you think that means I need therapy, you should read a few of the journal bits. You’d have me in a padded room post-haste. But I digress…)

The exercise serves a second purpose too. It helps me develop the character’s voice – the phrasing, the cadence, the verbal tics that set that person apart from all the others. Every person speaks differently, and characters should too. Dialogue tags are useful, but I try to make it clear who’s speaking before the reader even gets to the tag.

By way of example:

Father Mateo and Hiro live in a house which the Jesuits purchased for Father Mateo upon his arrival in Kyoto two years before the start of Claws of the Cat. Along with the house, Father Mateo acquired an elderly, crotchety housekeeper named Ana.

Ana rules the house with an iron fist and sternly disapproves of any shenanigans. But, you see, what I just did was telling – and in the novel, I wanted to show. So I gave her a verbal habit to express her critical nature:

            Ana frowned at the men around the hearth. “Who brought that cat in?”      

            The tortoiseshell kitten had followed her into the room. As she pointed in its direction, it turned around and streaked into Hiro’s room.

            Hiro and Father Mateo exchanged a look.

            “I did,” Hiro admitted, “as a present for Father Mateo.”

            He hoped Ana’s love for the Jesuit would prevent a scolding, but didn’t count on it.

            “Hm,” she said. “Is it staying?”

That “Hm,” sets Ana’s dialogue apart. She uses it to express concern, frustration, and disdain. She’s also the only character who says it.

A word, an expression, or a unique turn of phrase can become a character’s signature. It has to be used judiciously – too much, like too much salt, will spoil the dish – but properly utilized, a verbal limp (or an eyepatch) can make dialogue sing and characters stand out from the crowd.

Cherry blossom

Do any of your favorite characters have a special gesture or phrase that sets them apart? I’d love to know what sets dialogue singing for you!


Deb Dana and The Gift for Gab

LittlemisschatterboxbookEver writer has her strengths.

Some are masters of plot, crafting storylines so tight and complex that readers cannot possibly guess what is coming next.

Others excel at writing sentences so beautiful, they force you to put the book down for a moment and swim in those words for a few seconds longer.

As for me? My strength — or at least the part of writing I enjoy most — is dialogue.

Writing dialogue can be a tricky business, but for me, it’s always been the easiest part of writing, and here’s why.

(1) Talking is what I do. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I like to talk. A lot. Too much, actually. But my penchant for talking has served me well in knowing what someone might say in a certain situation and how a conversation might naturally proceed. Even though the volume of my speech might be extreme (apologies to everyone I know), the actual sentences contained therein aren’t necessarily all that long. I probably wouldn’t say, “I think that’s a good idea.” I probably wouldn’t even say, “That’s a good idea.” In all likelihood, I’d simply say, “Good idea.” By possessing the gift for gab myself, I can impart that gift for gab onto my characters.

(2) I used to work in broadcast news. When I was a field producer and reporter, part of my job involved logging (i.e. transcribing) interviews with everyone from government officials to students to bakery owners. By listening to these people speak on camera, I unwittingly began to understand how people speak — how a tax policy wonk at a DC think tank might sound different than, say, an environmental activist from Britain or a business owner from South Carolina. Their speech patterns and turns of phrase began to imprint themselves on my brain, and so when I sat down to write a fictional character, I could draw upon my broadcast experience and say, “This is how someone like that would speak.”

Back in high school, one of my English teachers referred to dialogue as punctuation — something that would break up long passages of description with the staccato notes of your characters’ voices. That description has always stuck with me, to the point where I almost need to remind myself to do the reverse: punctuate my dialogue with paragraphs of description. Regardless, as someone who loves to talk, I will always love writing dialogue — and reading it.

What about you? Do you like reading and/or writing dialogue? Do you ever find yourself skipping over paragraphs of description to get to the part where the conversation begins or resumes?



Deb Linda Turns to Dialogue to Avoid Talking to Herself

Since my lovely sister Debs have already covered the subject of dialogue in books so thoroughly this week, I thought I’d talk a bit about a different kind — the dialogue between author and reader.

Now more than ever, writers can freely interact, via various forms of social media, with their readers and potential readers. Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, personal blogs, and, yes, group blogs like this very one, all provide fantastic forums for actual back-and-forth discussions with the people most important to a writer’s career.

The thing about being a writer is that it can be isolating. Sitting in front of a computer, tapping the keyboard and watching words unfold on the screen in front of you is satisfying, yes–otherwise why would so many of us do it? barring that whole being a masochist thing, I mean–but it can also lead to some lonely moments. Playing with the people in your head is fun, but face it — they’re all, strictly speaking, “you.” (Yes, even the evil ones.) (Okay, in my case, especially the evil ones.)

And sometimes *cough* playing with talking to yourself just doesn’t cut it.

For most writers, the easiest — and fastest — way to interact with a mind other than their own is to pop onto Twitter, or over to Facebook, and begin a dialogue with some other lonely slob writer or reader. You can always commiserate with other the writers, which is indispensable in navigating the rocky road to publication, but it’s the readers you meet online who provide an invaluable peek into the minds of the people you’re trying to reach through your books.

I met every one of my beta readers online, and without the dialogue that sprang up between us, my books never would have been completed, much less sold. Our conversations let me know when I was on the right track and, even more important, when I was way off-base. For example:

Beta Reader: Gawd! You really think Ciel would do that?

Me: Um … I guess not?

Beta Reader: I mean, it’s just a little … you know.

Me: I think you may be right. Consider it undone. Thanks!

(Or something like that.)

And you know what I’m really looking forward to? Meeting new readers after In a Fix is out there in the world. I couldn’t be happier that the internet line of communication is  there, waiting to provide the opportunity for more dialogue. (Frankly, it’s a lot less intimidating than random people showing up on your doorstep with a bone to pick about an ill-chosen plot point. *grin*)

Obligatory end-of-post questions:

If you’re a writer, how has being able to establish a ready dialogue with your readers/future readers helped (or hindered — I suppose that’s possible, too) your writing?

If you’re a reader, does easy access to writers via the internet make a difference in the books you choose to read?


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?