More about dialogue

After reposting my discussion about dialogue, I thought of a few more things to take into consideration when creating conversations between and among our characters.

  • Their age – older people will use different terms and expressions from younger people. The references they choose will be age appropriate as well. People in their 20’s and 30’s aren’t going to quote The Andy Griffith Show, for instance. They probably don’t even know who that is. Older folks may speak a little more formally, they may not curse or use slang as often. In Three Empty Frames, one of my characters is an elderly gentleman. He says things like “Heavens to Betsy” and “Why, I never!” which is perfectly acceptable for someone in his 80’s. However, if his daughter, in her late 20’s, spoke that way, it would sound ridiculous.
  • Regional expressions – I touched on this briefly in yesterday’s post. There are local expressions and terminologies that won’t travel to all parts of the country. I’ll give you a regional Philly example. “Jawn” is a term only used in this part of the country that refers to a person, place, event or thing. And while it pretty much defies definition, maybe it’ll make more sense if I use it in a sentence. “I really want the new iPhone but that jawn is too expensive.” “Went to see Roger Waters in concert last month. That jawn was awesome.” No one in Indiana or Florida or Utah is going to say “jawn”.
  • Cliches – I despise cliches. However, people do use them in their everyday speech. This is really up to the writer, but overusing cliches even in writing dialogue gets really boring. Keep them to a minimum.
  • Use of names – what I mean is having the speaker constantly say the name of the person to whom he is speaking. Like this:

“Joni, are you ok?”
“Yes, Graham, I’m fine.”
“Thank god, Joni. I was worried.”
“Graham, you are too sweet.”

We know who is talking to whom after the first two lines, the names don’t need to be constantly repeated. We don’t speak like that to each other in the real world, don’t do it in your fictional world, either.

  • Speech descriptors – while I don’t completely buy into Elmore Leonard’s rule of only using ‘said’ and ‘asked’ to describe speech, I do think it’s usually the best choice. I had read this rule after writing the first draft of my first Bucks County Novel. When I went back and read aloud all the ways I had described what people were saying, I cringed. Shouted, blustered, snapped, laughed, spat, hissed, giggled, sighed, moaned, grumbled, mumbled, murmured, whispered, muttered, shrieked… well, you get the idea. I changed 80% of that back to ‘said’ and ‘asked’. And to be accurate, people don’t ‘laugh’ or ‘sigh’ their words, they ‘say’ them with a sigh. Like this:

Wrong: “What am I going to do with you, Kerry?” she sighed.
Right: “What am I going to do with you, Kerry?” she asked, sighing. (or with a sigh.)

Our fictional conversations have to be natural. It will impact the believability and relate-ability of our characters. Readers need to be invested in those characters to want to keep reading their stories. And we want those stories to be read!

Happy writing and productive editing!

Internal Chatter: I’m not crazy, I’m a writer.

Picture this:  you’re at a party, standing with a group of your friends and a lively conversation is flowing around you.  You’re staring off into the middle distance and you smile to yourself.  The talk turns serious as your friends begin to discuss the war in Syria, the refugee crisis and the ongoing political turmoil.  They look at you in horror as you burst into laughter.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” one of them asks.  “You think this is funny?”

“Er… sorry, what?”  you ask, bewildered.

The Big Bang Theory, CBS Television

Welcome to the life of a writer.  In your world, characters talk to you and to each other.  It often keeps you awake at night.  It makes your mind wander in the middle of a family gathering, a business meeting or during a class.  Your family, friends, coworkers and teachers are not amused.

The thing is, that internal chatter is essential to good writing.  “Hearing” the voices talking, listening to an invisible narrator spin a tale, visualizing the scene, debating the sides of an issue during conflict;  that is writing, writing without committing the words to paper.  Let me digress for a minute, then we’ll get back to the writing bit.

Any of these sound familiar?

  • You talk out loud to yourself.
  • You ask and answer your own questions.
  • You will be having a conversation inside your own head, then continue it out loud to whomever is with you, totally confusing them.
  • When you are concentrating on something, the house could burn down around you and you wouldn’t notice.
  • You LIKE being alone, not that you don’t ever want company, but you relish your quiet time without distractions (this is also an introvert characteristic*)
  • You are rarely bored.

Not everyone with these … um … qualities is going to become a writer, obviously.  Nevertheless, possessing these ‘quirks’ has helped me muddle along this writing path.  And yet, I find I’ve become a worse companion!

It’s sometimes annoying a challenge to live with a writer.  Your spouse or partner can feel a little cheated when you’re not paying attention to them.  (Take notice the next time you read an author’s bio or their blog ‘about’ page.  A spouse/partner is so often described as ‘long suffering’, it’s almost cliche.)  It can be weird when you talk about your characters as if they were real people.  We went to the Philadelphia Auto Show last year and I kept pointing out the different cars my characters drive. Eventually, I found myself abandoned amidst the Porsches.  And yet, *sigh* I find myself doing things like that all the time.  “Hey, that’s where Tommy’s Law Office is.”  “Doesn’t that look like the kind of house Leo would buy to fix up?”  “I bet Graham’s band would play at this bar!” 

On second thought, that does sound kinda crazy …

Anyway, the point is, if you are not having internal conversations with your characters, chances are they will be boring and one dimensional.  They have to have vivid personalities (that’s not to say they all have to be outrageous, just memorable.)  You have to know them intimately, their strengths, their weaknesses, their passions and their faults. Write short biographies on each of them.  Create a character database in a computer file or assemble it on index cards.  Even if you don’t address these traits within your narrative, their backgrounds and peculiarities will influence the way they act/react in your story.  And THAT makes for good writing!

So writers, what do you talk to your characters about?  

*Many people think introversion is a disorder like social phobia.  However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  I asked my friend Josh Gross, who studies psychology, to explain the difference.  These are his comments:

The way I’ve heard introversion/extroversion described by hard-core Jungian personality theorists is that it all comes down to where we get our energy. Extroverts get most of their energy from outside themselves; be they ideas or other people. This means they need to spend time with other people to be at their best. They may also need some time alone, but they feel the negative effects of isolation faster than introverts.

On the other hand, introverts derive most of their energy from inside themselves. They may have excellent social skills and enjoy the company of others, but being intensely social wears them out faster than extroverts. Sooner or later they need to take some time by themselves to recenter and recharge.

So introversion and social phobia are quite different. Social phobia involves a fear of social situations that is so pronounced that it interferes with one’s ability to function. Introversion simply refers to the need to spend time alone in order to be at one’s best. Introverts can be surprisingly social, as long as they are able to take breaks when they need to. They also are not immune to the damaging effects of loneliness.

Thanks Josh!