Friday, February 19, 2010

PART TWO: The One With All the Dialogue Tips.

Because our dialogue deserves the very best.

Did you miss part one? Check it out! There are five whole tips there, along with references to My So-Called Life, 10 Things I Hate About You, Friends, Encino Man, and my unrequited crush from age 9-16.

Go ahead, tips six to ten will be here when you get back!

6. Setting
Where and when your book is set affects dialogue a lot. In visual mediums like movies and TV, there's no CHOICE but to 100% embrace a setting in time and place, and viewers are used to this. AKA, why we can now giggle at the ensemble choices in Dawson's Creek.
(I totally had this poster taped up on my bedroom door.)

Because books rely so much on imagination, it's easier for them to be timeless.

What to drop:
- Slang. In real life, it changes week to week, and unless you keep it at a minimum (or use your own), your book will be dated before you finish revisions. Plus, it can sound way too forced.
- Clothing. See Dawson's Creek image above. Again with dating your novel. If you're looking for longevity, lose the Uggs.
- Pop culture references. Ditto. Plenty of authors have their MCs listen to widely recognizable, timeless artists like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones --- instead of the Jonas Brothers or Lady Gaga --- for this reason. Or you can invent a band or celebrity crush.
"All I wanna do is graduate from high school, move to Europe, marry Christian Slater, and die. Now, that may not sound too exciting to a stone-head like you, but I think it's swell. And then you come along and, and tell me I'm a member of the hairy mole club so you can throw things at me? I don't THINK so!" -- Buffy (the original)
Ok, Joss Whedon's dialogue is brilliant, but high school girls today aren't drooling over Christian Slater anymore.
(Honestly not quite sure why they ever did...) 

What to keep:
- Regional vocabulary. If a certain vocabulary is native to an area, be sure to include it for accuracy. For example, in Philadelphia, you drink soda with a hoagie, not pop with a sub.
- Time-relevant slang/references/clothing. If a novel is historical, or even set in the 80s, "what to drop" becomes "what to keep." But again, if you overdo it with the Madonna references and "bedazzle" is your most common verb, it gets old.

7. Roles
People in roles of power tend to speak more than those not. For example, a teacher giving a lesson would have much longer sentences than a student because they're explaining something. Or a friend telling a sob story would say more than the listener. These visual cues of longer vs. shorter statements help a reader understand who's speaking without dialogue tags.

No wonder Giles is so long-winded!

8. Punctuation
Another way to keep dialogue interesting is to break it up. I love listening in on strangers' conversations to learn natural rhythms of speech. Don't be afraid to use punctuation to your advantage -- people don't speak in complete sentences, and neither should your characters.

Murray: Your man Christian is a cake boy!
Cher, Dionne: A what?
Murray: He's a disco-dancing, Oscar Wilde reading, Streissand ticket holding friend of Dorothy, know what I'm saying?
Cher: Uh-uh, no way, not even!
Murray: Yes even, he's gay!
Dionne: He does like to shop, Cher. And the boy can dress.
** Follower suggestion: In the comments of part 1, Lisa and Laura Roecker mentioned reading your dialogue aloud to see if it sounds natural. Excellent tip, ladies!

9. Entry/Exit of Conversation
Only start with "Hi" and end with "Bye" if they're relevant. You're not obligated to start a conversation at the beginning or cut it off at the end. The details in real life conversations would be mind-numbingly boring if they were transcribed exactly, so you might as well jump right into the meat of the dialogue.
Ron: I'm Ron by the way, Ron Weasley.
Harry: I'm Harry. Harry Potter.
Ron: So... so it's true! I mean, do you really have the... the...
Harry: The what?
Ron: [in a hushed tone] The scar?
Harry: Oh. [shows him the scar on his forehead] Yeah.
Ron: Wicked!
10. Accomplishment
No matter how funny or entertaining dialogue is, it must accomplish something. A conversation is not an excuse for an info-dump-for-the-sake-of-info-dumping. Dialogue can pass on information, and it should also reveal something about your characters or further the plot, but not in an obvious way.

AKA Why this Mean Girls scene is brilliant.

MORE of Linkovich Chomofsky's 
Actual Relevant Links from Smart People:
Weezin' the ju-uice!
I think I need to watch Encino Man again.

All of Janice Hardy's super helpful posts about dialogue.
Marianna Baer's post on creating distinct voices for similar characters.
Varian Johnson's post on dialogue-heavy scenes.
Nicola Morgan's posts on dialogue in historical fiction and showing-not-telling in dialogue.

Anything I missed that you consider when writing/revising dialogue? Any other great dialogue links from around the blogosphere? Leave it in the comments!


  1. Donna--great post! I think along with #10 it's useful to remember that dialogue immediately shortens narrative distance, and so should be used only to highlight important events that move the story forward.

    The choice of when and when not to use dialogue can be as critical to the success of your story as getting it right when you use it.

    Nice job on this post and thanks for sharing.

  2. when are you going to post the contest winners??

  3. Jon Paul - Excellent point, and very true!

    Anonymous - TOMORROW! So sorry for the delay. Thanks for your patience.

  4. Thanks for the new tips! I definitely agree about the pop culture references - the book I'm reading now mentions "Sidekicks" (the phone, which even I had to think about because I don't use that carrier) and that song "You Never Call Me When You're Sober" and I rolled my eyes at that mention because it annoyed me so much - and I still remember that song!

  5. Thanks for the shout out! Awesome tips, but I love the Mean Girls clip the best. That movie is just so fetch!


Thanks so much for reading our blog, and we really appreciate you taking the time to comment! We read every one, and we try to respond to all of them via email/comment.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...