Tag Archives: dialogue

Eight Ways You May Be Bungling Your Dialogue In Your Novel

 

“I’m not bungling my dialogue,” you say to yourself.

But you’ve had a few complaints from your beta readers about how they don’t like the characters. You’ve been told the story feels dead. While your plot is tight and your pacing is perfect, the characters themselves feel off. The trouble could be your dialogue. Dialogue is the soul of the characters. Dialogue is what brings the story to life for your reader. Are you bungling it?

Eight Ways You May Be Bungling Your Dialogue by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelists

You may be bungling you dialogue if . . .

 You’ve forgotten about the influence of setting.

Your story’s setting may play a role in the way that your characters speak. But too much dialect, slang or exaggerated speech can distract the reader. Dialogue brings action to the scene. You want your reader to focus on the words and actions of the character and allow the scene to flow smoothly. Anything that weakens the meaning, slows the pacing down or confuses the reader is working against you. How to fix this? Read the dialogue out loud. If you stumble over it, then you’ve put in too much regional nuance. If you can’t detect any hint of setting, consider adding a “Ya’ll” or a “Fo-gettabout-it”.

You’ve put in way too much exposition.

In some writing circles, they call this the “As you know, Bob,” mistake. This is when an author uses dialogue to pour out the background information in the conversation. While you do need some sort of exposition, it’s better to err on the side of not enough than too much. How to fix this? Highlight everything that is exposition and then read the draft out loud, skipping the highlighted parts. If you can tell what is going on without info, leave it out. Only put the least amount back in.

“[A]lways get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.”
P.G. Wodehouse

You use dialogue tags too much.

He yelled loudly. She whispered. He stuttered nervously. Now, there’s a lot of opinion about this. Some would say that the only tag you should ever use is said. And I can see that the simplicity of said allows it to be almost invisible to the reader. That’s a good thing. You don’t want to cause attention to anything except the story. But I would also argue that a well placed dialogue tag can create a visual image for the reader, as long as the verb was strong and possible adverb behind it was omitted. I’m also a fan of using a character body language to reveal the emotion. Like this: “I wish I knew more about Chad,” Cora bit her lip and twisted her hair. I’m hoping that Cora’s actions revealed her anxiety about a matter.

You’re just a little too formal.

Dialogue is where we can throw grammar rules out the window. A character wouldn’t always have their subjects and verbs agree. They may speak in sentence fragment. They probably use contractions. The best dialogue is loose and indicative of the complex person that it represents. And people are really emotional! Make sure that their true feelings are coming through somehow — even if they have something to hide! How to fix this? Read your dialogue aloud. Does it feel wooden or stiff? Rewrite it so that the true personality of the character is shining through.

You write the exact way that people speak.

This may seem contradictory to the previous advice, but one is about regional influence and the other is about unnecessary words. People speak poorly. Their conversations are full of empty words, stops, starts, repetitions and omissions. When we listen to a speaker, we take in the information of dialogue as a whole. We never focus on one word at at a time. We gather information from the tone and the body language. Good listeners can glean an immense amount of meaning from subtle cues. Few of these cues can be translated to the written page. How to fix this? Cut out everything that’s unnecessary.

“Dialogue concentrates meaning; conversation dilutes it.”
Robert McKee

You have no distinction between the characters.

Ideally, you want your characters to be so distinctive that you could take away the tags and have a clue on who was speaking. But that’s not always possible. The key to having distinctive dialogue is developing all characters well. The more you know your characters, the more their voice will come through. How to fix this? Spend time writing a perspective of the story from that character’s point of view. You’ll be acting as if you are that character. After a few hundred words, you may sense what they sense. As you craft their dialogue, try to slip back into that character. You’ll probably see a difference.

You ramble on and on without a break.

It is so true that there are people out there who do not know how to shut up. If rambling is boring to listen to, then it’s doubly boring to read. If your character really does have a long speech to give, figure out a way to break it up for the sake of the reader. How to fix this? Have someone interrupt and ask question. The speakers should cough and need water. Have the listener notice something and reflect for just a moment. Describe what they are doing with their hands. Or maybe describe their appearance while they speak. Describe their sweaty forehead, their great haircut, their wrinkled clothes or the way they are standing.

You forget about subtext.

Subtext is what is really being said between the lines. The couple might be speaking in hushed tones, nose to nose, about how much they like cheese, but they’re really flirting and are seconds away from a kiss. Then six scenes later, the same cheese issue comes up, but they are on opposite sides of the room, not facing each other and she’s whimpering. What is really going on? How to fix this? Make a note at the top of each scene describing what you want to accomplish in each scene. Also note the emotional temperature of each character. Use their body language to communicate one thing even if their words say something else.

Every word that you write must be carefully scrutinized.

The challenge (and the fun) of writing dialogue is that it’s not just your words that you’re writing, but you’re also giving your character words to say. With thoughtfulness and deliberate choices, your dialogue will not be bungled. And your story will come to life for your reader.


Want more articles about great dialogue?

Check out Top 20 Things You Can Give Your Characters That Will Make Them More Vivid

and

Top 10 Questions You Could Ask About Your Authority Figures That Could Beef Up Your Conflict!

Thanks for stopping by today!


I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community. 

Nine Strategies to Make Your Scenes Feel More Cinemagraphic

Have you ever read a book whose scenes felt movie-like?

You’ve read the books that flowed seamlessly from one scene to another.

You’ve read over the descriptions of the settings that were rich and details. As you turned the pages, you may have had a sense of action and tension that felt exactly right. As you read dialogue, you could actually hear the characters speaking. You saw them bust into the safe, stash the jewels into their pockets, and scurry out the back door before the owner walked in the front. You love books that read like movies. 

The scenes of the book are so rich, you’re tempted to whip up a batch of popcorn.

Nine Ways To Make Your Scenes More Cinemagraphic by Katharine Grubb 10 Minute Novelist

You can write your books that way too. But it will take vibrant and action-packed scenes.

Cut out long descriptions. If you want your book to play in a reader’s head like a movie, then you need to keep the “camera” moving through the scenes. In a film, the camera wouldn’t spend too much time on detail of an inactive object or a setting because it would bore the reader. The director is counting on the viewer to put information together on their own. In the same way you can give your reader only the necessary details of description. Your goal is to make your scenes into a rich world, but do it concisely so that the reader stays interested.

Reduce the inner dialogue for characters. A well-composed character has lots of pain, desires and quirks. It’s tempting to over-monologue the character because you’ve put so much thought into him. Don’t do it. Like too much description, too much characterization can bog the story down and bore the reader. Instead, reveal the personality in the main character’s actions and dialogue. Scenes full of showing, not telling, will keep the story moving.

Keep the characters moving. With each scene, give your characters reason to get up and get going. They need to do stuff with their hands. They need to pick their cuticles, feed the dog or tap their fingers on the steering wheel while they are driving. These little actions create a visual image to your reader. If their action changes it can also add tension. You want tension in all your scenes!

When writing screenplays, it’s a matter of remembering to leave off the page anything and everything that doesn’t appear on the screen.

–Taiye Selasi

Be diligent about backstory. You may have spent months crafting the backstory of your hero. You’ve labored over his desires and goals. You know all his tragedies and fears. You’ve worked at him. Unfortunately, your reader won’t find his story as interesting as you do. Some backstory is always necessary, but it can slow down pacing. Be brutal when cutting it out. Only share what is the most necessary.

Don’t spoon feed your reader with the obvious. A film director has to get his entire story told in 90 minutes. He can’t afford to underscore each point for the viewer. He has to depend that the viewers will the blanks in as they watch (Or lean over and ask their wives what the heck is going on, and then she promptly elbows him in the gut and tells him to be quiet!) In the same way, you need to keep up your pacing and hope that the reader will follow. If you’ve done everything else well, he probably will!

Nine Ways To Make Your Scenes More Cinemagraphic by Katharine Grubb 10 Minute Novelist

Give each scene a clear objective: either the main character got one more step closer to the goal or he didn’t. Before you write a new scene, ask yourself: will he get closer or not? How can I take victory out of his hands? Can I push him to success unexpectedly? How can I garner sympathy from the reader in his plight? Can I get the reader to cheer his success? If your scenes aren’t making that distinction, then you’re creating something static. Don’t bore your reader with inaction.

Understand the emotional temperature of each character in the scene. I find it helpful to see a scene in my head and list the characters in it. Then I list their exact emotion during that scene. I make sure that they react to the events in logical way. Also, I make sure that they argue or find conflict. No two people see the same thing the same way. Your characters should be no different. Make their actions and their dialogue reflect these varying emotional differences.

If I really considered myself a writer, I wouldn’t be writing screenplays. I’d be writing novels.

Quentin Tarantino

Choose vibrant verbs. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing, choose active verbs! “We went to the store,” is boring. “We ambled to the pharmacy,” is so much better.

End chapters with a question or mid-conflict. The scene finishes and you’re just about to tell the reader how it sums up, except don’t. Your characters have spent five pages getting to the treasure. They open it up but you don’t tell your reader what’s in it! The friends drove to that great party on the other side of town, but they get into an argument on the way there about that girl. They show up at the party not speaking to each other. The reader will be forced to wonder, do they make up or not? 

You can also look at this article by Jody Hedlund. She has advice about this too!  And you can also see a different viewpoint altogether on K.M. Weiland’s blog too. 

To make your books feel more like a theatrical experience, think action in nearly every way. Your readers will feel like they are playing out the story alongside your characters. And you? You’ll be the next Michael Bay or Tim Burton.

Now, please pass the popcorn!

 


I am a fiction writing and time management coach. I help time crunched novelists strengthen their craft, manage their time and gain confidence so they can find readers for their stories.

Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement and community. 

Beginnings Are Not Just Background: Creating Good Characters A Guest Post By Sophia Ryan

 

Character development should start from scene one of your novel and end when the novel does. But how do you write characters we all want to read about?

Coloring your dialog with details such as gesture, appearance, tone, thoughts, and reaction helps readers get a better sense of your characters. And, if readers have a better sense of who your characters are, says author Nancy Kress in her book, Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, they might be more willing to read more of your story.

Beginnings Are Not Just Background: Creating Good Characters  A Guest Post By Sophia Ryan

There are times when you want quick, back-and-forth dialog with limited narrative, but that works best when the reader already knows your characters. In the beginning scenes, readers need more than background and dialog in order to get to know – and care about – your characters. Dialog can’t carry that load on its own.

I’ll illustrate this point by walking you through a brief passage from a novel.

First up is a stripped-down scene of dialog only. As you read, ask yourself three questions: what do you know about the characters, do you like the characters, and what you think the story is about.

“Why don’t you have a boyfriend taking care of your needs?” he asked.

“That’s none of your business.” She turned back and continued walking.

“Girls like you usually have loads of boyfriends to pick from.”

“Girls like me? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Ones with eyes that could stop a man’s heart and lips that could bring him back to life.”

“I’m not incapable of getting a boyfriend, if that’s what you’re suggesting.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“I’d have one if I wanted one.”

“Do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Want someone?”

“What I want is…” Oh, God…you! “…to focus on finishing my degree.”

Meh. Feels a bit like eating plain oatmeal, right?

What could you tell about the characters from this exchange? Probably not much. Now, see what happens when you support the dialog with the characters’ thoughts, gestures, actions, and reactions. Using our oatmeal analogy, add butter, milk, cinnamon, nuts, sugar, and dried fruit to the pale mush and see if it isn’t a tad tastier to the eyes and the tongue.

“Why don’t you have a boyfriend taking care of your needs?” His gaze narrowed and zeroed in on hers.

“That’s none of your business.” She stared him down, her eyes hot, her body trembling with anger at the typical male assumption that no woman could ever be happy with and satisfied by another woman. Bastard!

“Girls like you usually have loads of boyfriends to pick from.”

“Girls like me? What’s that supposed to mean?” Before she could stop herself, her hand jabbed out, connecting with his shoulder, and bumped him hard.

He barely budged, and his lips pulled into a snide grin, showing his teeth, and his eyes burned red. Grabbing the back of her neck with one hand, he pulled her close, his mouth almost touching hers.

“Ones with eyes that could stop a man’s heart and lips that could bring him back to life.”

Chills skated up and down her body as her skin absorbed his steamed words. For the first time since he joined her, her heart pounded. In fear? Or lust? Both. She could no longer pretend to be unaffected by his…maleness.

“I’m not incapable of getting a boyfriend, if that’s what you’re suggesting.” The words snapped from her mouth, extra sharp to puncture his ego.

“I didn’t say that.” His eyes stared deeply into hers. She felt a burning in her head, felt a wiggling heat crawling through her mind. At that moment, she was sure he could read the real reason she didn’t have a boyfriend.

“I’d have one if I wanted one,” she said, almost in a defensive whimper, and lost her mind completely when he reached out and brushed a thick strand of hair from her face with his fingertips.

“Do you?” He breathed the words more than spoke them. His mouth went to her exposed neck.

Her skin heated under his touch. Her body turned to pudding. So did her brain. She’d forgotten the question.

“Do I what?” she murmured, and with a low moan, tipped her head closer to his mouth.

“Want someone?” His voice was inside her. Hot. Fast. Paralyzing.

“What I want is…” Then his teeth sank into her flesh, and he sucked her essence into his mouth. Swallowed her. Oh, my God. “You!” The word slipped from her lips on her last breath.

The dialog is the same, but after reading this section you know these characters a little better. You can make assumptions about who they are and what they’re doing. You can decide whether you want to continue reading about them and their situation and whether you like where the story seems to be going. The difference comes from the details in how they react to each other, their thoughts, the way they look, what they’re doing, and so on.

As you’re writing, be sure to ask yourself whether you’re giving the readers everything you want them to know about your characters from the very beginning. Every paragraph has to advance your story, and those that don’t advance it need to go. Every paragraph also has to develop your characters in some way.

Every paragraph has to advance your story, and those that don’t advance it need to go. Every paragraph also has to develop your characters in some way.

Look at a few scenes in your novel.

What are they saying about your characters? What impression are they giving? Are the characters interesting? Or bland? Are they the people who can carry your novel forward? Are they up to the challenge? Or will readers take one look at them and see unadorned oatmeal? If you’re not impressed, your readers won’t be either.

Give this exercise a try and you, too, can fill your beginnings with character, situation, and pleasing prose that will hook – and hold – your readers’ attention.


Author Sophia RyanSophia Ryan writes the kind of books she likes to read: stories where sexual heat sizzles off the page and the characters fall hard into lust and soft into love. Before she transitioned to novels, she wrote short stories for the Trues family of confession magazines and Woman’s World to pay for grad school. When she’s not writing about passion, she’s indulging in it–yoga, hiking, laughing with friends over hot chile and cold beer, and being lazy and crazy with the family. She works full time as an editor for an international professional association and she has a master’s degree in professional writing. Her books can be found here, She Likes It Irish, Dirty Little Secret6 Days of You, Sin City Alibi – coming summer 2015,Only Forever – coming fall 2015