How Can I Write Better Dialogue? 4 Quick Tips

Dialogue matters.  A lot.  In fact, I have stopped reading many an otherwise solid novel due to sub-par dialogue, and I wanted to provide a friendly warning to authors out there: even casual readers can sniff out sloppy dialogue, and that could cause said readers to stop reading, which could mean they write a bad review, or worse, no review at all.  And what happens to the novelist then?  Well, that lack of reviews could lead the writer in question to quit writing and take up drinking, which could lead to the downfall of his marriage, which could lead to him losing custody of his kids, which could lead to more drinking and financial problems, which could lead to getting behind on the mortgage.  The end result: the writer ends up homeless.  . . .all because he wrote piss-poor dialogue. Tragic.

dialogue new

Anyhew, I’m in the midst of new writing project, and to remind myself not to screw up dialogue and end up drunk, divorced, destitute, and only seeing my adorable son Harry on every other weekend, I’ve jotted down 4 quick tips. Enjoy.

tension

Tip #1: Dialogue creates tension.

  • Speaking in completely reductive but useful terms, I lump all novel writing to do with tension-building into two broad categories: characters either DO things that create tension, or characters SAY things that create tension. So when writing dialogue remember to allow a character’s true personality to come out to play. If they’re mysterious, dole out their words carefully, and with utmost attention paid to timing. If they’re a smartass, dialogue is an ideal place to showcase that particular talent (yes, it qualifies as a talent; otherwise, I would have no discernible talent). All of these should help increase tension between the characters.

character counts

Tip #2: Dialogue builds a character’s backstory.

  • It takes a seasoned novelist to achieve what I’m about to suggest, but it can be done and done well: use dialogue to help round out a character’s backstory. Now I’m not suggesting nor do I advocate for information dumps; those take readers out of the story, which defeats the purpose. But if you can weave in memorable (and, occasionally, important) bits about a character’s biography then dialogue is wonderfully efficient place to do so. Plus, it saves time and space. Being lazy, I like that.

dialogue new newTip #3: Dialogue helps create separate and unique characters.

  • Every character, from the protagonist to a minor character with only a few lines, should have a distinct way of speaking. This helps brand them as unique characters, and it helps readers differentiate between characters, especially recurring ones who have lots of dialogue. Find ways to make every character’s speech memorable. Does a character stutter? Talk really fast? Speak in clipped phrases? Whatever, just make it memorable.

feelings

Tip #4: Dialogue, on occasion, reveals a character’s most important thoughts and feelings.

  • Again, a seasoned novelist will do this sparingly. Unless, of course, the character in question is someone who wears his or her heart on his or her sleeve and keeps up a constant monologue. But still, dialogue is a nice place to, on occasion, toss in how a character feels about an issue (say, the crime in question, for example). This will help cement a reader’s feelings toward the character, and it will also help other characters who are involved in the dialogue parse their own feelings.

talk

So how important is dialogue to you as a reader? Got any tips on how to create meaningful and memorable dialogue? Have any Italian sandwiches you’d like to send my way? (What, I’m hungry.) Would love to hear from you. Drop a comment.

 

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E. Michael Helms: It’s Show and Tell Time

helmsOn showing versus telling in writing: Writers, let your readers experience the drama of your scenes in real time. Let them see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the action as it occurs. 

It’s Show and Tell Time!

Remember back in grammar school how we looked forward to our class’s Show and Tell time? No? Well, maybe schools cut S&T from the curriculum a while back, like everyday P.E., and the latest victim from those “dear old Golden Rule days,” cursive writing. But I digress.

It was a Friday morning, about a decade past the midway point of last century. The school year was drawing to a close, and the weekend beckoned. Mrs. Fussel was a doozy for show and tell. A “learning experience,” she called it, a time for us fourth-graders to “expand our imagination and creativity.” As I recall, there were no hard and fast rules about what we brought to show off and tell about, no forbidden items to send school officials into a frenzied panic. Pocket knives, slingshots, lizards, frogs—all had passed muster and drawn oohs, ahs, and occasional shrieks from girls in our classroom. Heck, one time Billy Ross even brought a big rat snake he’d caught, and Mrs. Fussel let anybody brave enough have a turn touching or holding it.

green lizard - 1rat snake

So I figured I was on safe ground when I opened the grocery sack and withdrew my prized collection of black widow spiders. As I set it on the edge of teacher’s desk, Mrs. Fussel screamed, shoved back the chair and vacated her position at the head of the room. In her hasty retreat a stack of work booklets tipped over, knocking the goldfish bowl to the floor. The bowl shattered, the spiders scattered, and my classmates clattered—some racing after Mrs. Fussel as she waved them into the hallway and safety, others attacking my treasured arachnid collection with books and shoes and other handy weaponry.

By lunchtime the show and tell incident was the talk of the school. My classmates wowed friends from other rooms with tales of bravery and narrow escapes from the jaws of death. One phrase, expressed in a dozen different ways, has remained with me throughout all the passing years: “Boy, you should’ve seen it!” The eyewitnesses to the event—my classmates—saw it happen. For them, it was a much more powerful experience than those who were told about it. “Wow, I wish I could’ve been there and saw that!” was a common response from the listeners.

Yes, the creepy-crawly caper happened as recorded. The classroom was evacuated and the custodians called in to make certain none of my show and tell stars survived. New rules were put in place to insure students and faculty wouldn’t be subjected to danger in the future. I escaped with a stern talking-to and a note for my parents to sign. I didn’t fare so well at home, but that’s another story.

illustrate

I use this life experience to illustrate a well-worn but important phrase for all writers: Show, don’t Tell! Which group of school kids experienced the spider incident on a deeper level? Those who saw it, those who witnessed it as it occurred in real time. They were shown the teacher’s reaction, the goldfish bowl crashing to the floor, the venomous spiders scurrying to escape, the pandemonium that followed. In contrast, their friends in other classrooms only experienced the chaotic scene by being told about it. To them it was secondhand information, in the past instead of real time.

Writers, let your readers experience the drama of your scenes in real time. Let them see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the action as it occurs. Don’t relegate your readers to after-action listeners. SHOW, DON’T TELL!

 

Kait Carson: “Characters–They’re in All of Us”

Author photos 009ON creating characters: In the beginning, writers create their characters from a pastiche of traits.. .Then, like kids, characters morph into beings of their own and work to fulfill a destiny that is uniquely theirs.

By Kait Carson

Patty Duke died this week. The death hit me hard. I wanted to be Patty Duke—or was it Patty Lane, I’m not sure—when I was a child. Both had it all from my vantage point. Both Pattys lived in New York, wore great clothes, had great hair, understanding parents, and Patty Lane had a really cool cousin with a fantastic accent. What more could a girl want. News flash! Patty Duke was a character. Patty and Cathy Lane were too but Patty Duke was a fiction. And that’s how it is with characters, especially main characters. Protagonists.

scuba

Protagonists done well create the same initial question in the reader’s mind. Is this a character, or is it the author? Truth is it’s a bit of both. E. Michael Helms, a blog mate, is a former Marine. Hank Phillippi Ryan is an investigative journalist (and on TV to boot). Patricia Cornwell worked in a Medical Examiner’s office. I scuba dive and am a paralegal. So Mac, Jane, Kay, and Hayden are lightly fictionalized depictions of…the authors. Although I can’t be 100% certain about anyone but me, it’s probably safe to say, “No way.” I know it’s safe to deny any relationship between Hayden and me. Case in point, Hayden is much younger, a lot savvier, and way more self-assured. But, I gotta thank you for the compliment.

Realism is the key to creating memorable characters. If the reader has some confusion between what’s real and what’s created, so much the better. It means we writers are doing our job well. Multi-dimensional characters become real to the reader, and to the author. When I’m stuck, I’ll ask Hayden what she would do next. What, in the context of this scene, would be the worst thing that could happen to her? What would be the best? The question is never what I would do. After two books, Hayden would point and laugh. She thinks I’m boring. And from a character standpoint, I am. I make her keep her legal stuff straight.

personality

Every character has its own personality. Its own wants, needs, fears, hopes, secrets, embarrassments, quirks, temper, and emotions. In the beginning, writers create their characters from a pastiche of traits, many selected because they suit the author’s vision of the character. The page would stay blank otherwise. Those characterizations last for about two chapters. Just long enough to figure out what the character looks like. Then, like kids, characters morph into beings of their own and work to fulfill a destiny that is uniquely theirs. Like Patty Duke who started life as Anna Marie Duke and from all accounts, never confused one with the other.

 Miss you Patty, Godspeed.

Anna, I wish I knew you.

Guest Blog: “Writing the Story” by Jack Hammond, Jr.

 jack hammondOn developing characters: Characters must become real people. They exist in a real world, and for me, the real world is Man in Nature.

by Jack Hammond Jr

Writing the Story

The birth of my stories begins with a single image that grows in my imagination. When I put the story on paper, it is a living part of my thinking. The story begins to tell itself. I am simply the messenger using characters, conflicts, imagery and dialogue to weave a story from that image. If I am successful, the story breathes, takes on a life of its own. After The Last Hanging in Scots Bend, I began three very different stories; before long, one story began to live and tell itself. That story is my next novel.

character mattersPlot does not drive my writing. I don’t do plot outlines, because I never know where the story is going. In my first novel, Stash Harris faces a sentence of hanging for the revenge murder of two men, but he is so likeable, the problem was how to save him. How to save Stash became conflict and complication for the sheriff, his uncle. In the historical story, the Stash character escaped to Virginia. It seemed too weak for fiction, so my own conflict was hang Stash in spite of how likeable he was, or, find a way to save him. Happily, the solution revealed itself to me. From there, it was a simple puzzle.

In the same way that good figurative language and detail allow every reader to develop a personal image of the setting, not using direct characterization allows every reader to create a personal image of the characters. Indirect characterization is key for me. Each reader should have a visceral connection to the characters. I prefer multiple first person narration for that reason. Each character’s own words should connect them with the reader.

Characters must become real people. They exist in a real world, and for me, the real world is Man in Nature. I write detail that attempts to place characters firmly in the natural world. The sheriff’s first words in the novel are an example:

jack's book “I am up to watch the sunrise every morning. Heavy rain clouds lumber out of the southwest, covering the sky, leaving a thin slice of blue along the eastern horizon,   allowing the sun’s first rays to weave into the cloud bottoms. A light, steady rain is falling, a rain that promises more. Seven evening grosbeaks cross the yard in front of me, lighting in the willow oak, chittering their antediluvian song to the rain. They wait for the scattering of oats, rye, and sorghum I sow into the yard every morning, and when I reach into the grain barrel, they flash and whirl about the yard excitedly.”

My goal is to cement a character firmly in the natural world. I want the reader connected to the character as someone who is as real as they are themselves.

I don’t like revisionist fiction. I am a realist. I want my readers to ride an emotional roller coaster with the characters.  I want accurate historical context in my stories, so the story must be both real and accurate even if the reality of a particular place and time was extremely difficult. When I read my work in public, I have to stay away from some passages because of my own emotional connection. If I am good enough as a writer, every reader will find passages like that in my work. That is the goal.

goal

 

Bio

Jack Hammond Jr. is a lifelong resident of South Carolina, growing up during the Cold War and the Civil Rights era. He holds a BA in English from Coker College and an MBA from Wingate University. After a long career managing municipal and county utilities, Hammond left the business world and began teaching high school English. Teaching reignited his love for literature and writing. The Last Hanging in Scots Bend is his first novel. It draws historical images and individuals from the Reconstruction era into the intensely personal drama of two families locked in a bitter generational conflict. It is an examination of man’s place in the natural world, the randomness of fate, and man’s relationship to God.

It’s the Characters, Stupid: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains

maltese falcon“You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once and then give it up.”

By Max Everhart

It’s the economy, stupid.

That’s an old joke about the most important aspect of politics, and it’s a joke that I, as a committed, but albeit unsuccessful capitalist, happen to agree with wholeheartedly. (Alas, mystery writers, even damn good ones like me, don’t earn a ton of bread. C’est la vie).

Really, I couldn’t give a toss about politics. Don’t have time to care. Plus, liberals and conservatives alike make my scalp itch, which is just as well as I have a toddler to potty-train and English classes to teach and long walks to go on and Earl Grey to drink. In short, I’m busy. I mean, windows don’t just stare out of themselves, do they? And who if not me is going to organize my Netflix queue? Water my garden? Nuke more Pop Tarts? (Seriously, somebody get on that; I’m hungry.)

Enough foreplay.

To my thesis (drumroll, please): when it comes to mystery novels, it’s the characters, stupid. Characters, particularly the protagonist and the antagonist, trump all. I, like a lot of readers, enjoy an ingenious plot (The ABC Murders and The Maltese Falcon spring to mind), and a strong sense of place (think James Ellroy’s depiction of 1950s L.A. in The Big Nowhere). But what’s more important is the presence of strong characters, especially the hero who should be formidable, and flawed, and resourceful, and dynamic, and. . .you get the idea. Tall order, eh?

Maybe. But here are some quick and easy tips for creating memorable characters, along with some examples to check out.

 

TIP #1: always make sure that characters are driving the plot, not the other way around.

As readers, we are going to gravitate toward interesting, complex, flawed, likable characters, and if those are present in a book, the pages will turn themselves. Too, if the writer has created an interesting character, said character will naturally get involved in interesting situations, and there’s your plot. So, writers, if you’re writing scene after scene with a character, it’s just not working, chances are it is the character’s fault.

EXAMPLE: C.W. Sugrue, a hard-as-nails private eye in The Last Good Kiss. Talk about interesting characters. Hired to track down an alcoholic poet, Sugrue ends up bouncing from bar to bar, state to state, and never mind. Just read the opening of this book, and you’ll see what I mean:

last good kissWhen I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

TIP #2: reveal something good about your villain and something bad about your hero. 

Why? People are flawed and complex, and your characters should be, too. If ever you’re stuck, ask yourself the ultimate characterization question: what (or who) does my character want, and what (or who) is standing in the way?

Example: Chili Palmer, a shylock in Get ShortyNotice how Elmore Leonard reveals not only the origin of Palmer’s nickname, but he also adds a new layer of characterization to the protagonist.

get shortyErnesto Palmer got the name Chili originally because he was hot-tempered as a kid…Now he was Chili, Tommy Carlo said, because he had chilled down and didn’t need the hot temper. All he had to do was turn his eyes dead when he looked at a slow pay, not say more than three words, and the guy would sell his wife’s car to make the payment.

TIP #3: begin and end chapters with your characters doing (or saying) something interesting. 

This could be a provocative image or a bit of snappy dialogue. Readers want to be pulled into the story, particularly at the start and end of a new chapter, so make sure to keep them turning pages.  The best mystery and crime writers are adept at this, especially Daniel Woodrell, one of my favorites.

Example: Sammy Barlach, an ex-con in Tomato Red. Here is one of the the best openings of a crime novel ever.

tomato redYOU’RE NO ANGEL, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat. . .

If you’ve got more tips for creating memorable characters, or you have a favorite character you want to mention, leave us a comment.