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!
I finally received news from the second agent to whom I sent the first five pages of Three Empty Frames. Along with the material, I posed some questions regarding querying self published books. I had my suspicions confirmed. Here’s what she said:
“Agents rarely resell self published books these days. I think of it as your platform and what happened in the past. I’m looking to sell new, hot, fresh projects that publishers can work with from beginning to end. I would finish the series self published and then try traditional with a new project/series. Good luck!”
As you can imagine, I have mixed feelings. In one respect it feels like I’ve wasted my time and energy on all those stories. But in another, after three years and nearly half a million (!) words, I’ve definitely become a better writer. And both agents have had good things to say about the writing at least… It’s interesting to have another perspective on the beginning of the book. Here’s what she had to say about the opening scenes:
The opening quickly establishes setting and the dialogue strongly conveys a distinct dialect. The conversation appears to be setting up a frame narrative. Even though the reader gets backstory immediately, there’s enough held back (like the name of the love interest) to allow the reader to engage with the text. The narrative voice could be clearer—for a moment it’s somewhat unclear which man is on parole. The mystery of Joey verifying and looking into Mick’s story is intriguing, but it takes too long to get to this point of the story. The final scene didn’t pack enough of a punch for me. Jen, and the reader, seems to be ambushed by the announcement that two characters who have just been introduced are about to exit from the main plot. Lucinda seems to have a supernatural ability to anticipate Jen’s shift in thought. It’s interesting and complex. Good work.
She highlighted a few things that I already corrected but unlike the other agent who thought my dialogue was a little stiff, this agent thought it had ‘a distinct dialect.’ If you’ve ever had a conversation with an older, well-mannered gentleman, you will know that the way Mr. Dunne speaks to his daughter is accurate. I should know… I modeled him after my own father —a man who found himself with a baby daughter at the age of 55! So when I was in my late twenties (like Jen) he was in his early eighties! I was glad to have that bit of my writing validated. As for the rest of it, I will apply as best I can and keep it in mind for future projects.
Well, at least I get to delay the query process a little longer. I’m going to polish up Breaking Bread and put it out there before year’s end. That way I can start 2018 with a clean slate. As per the comments on my post the other day, I have some terrific suggestions on how to spice up the relationship between my two main characters and I’m going to dedicate the month of November to revisions. (Just like NaNoWriMo to keep me focused and disciplined). Then off to the editor and hopefully published before the holiday season. With the new year, comes a new (well not really new, just partially started…) project: my ‘historical’ novel, Here Lies a Soldier. Maybe I’ll finish it it time for Armistice Day 2018 – the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.