It Ain’t Just Talk: 3 Crucial Elements of Great Dialog

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She’s baaaaack. Well, sort of. Today I have an extra special treat. This is going to sound super conceited but whatever, it is MY blog😛 . But first lemme caveat with this.

I feel I DO have a knack for predicting the next big thing. Case in point, in 1993 I was at an air show and there was an unknown all-female band I chatted with because no one was really over there. I loved their unique sound and gushed over how one member employed the banjo (an instrument forgotten at that time).

I told them I was sure they were going to be the next biggest thing in country music, and even bought some of the cheap merchandise they sold to support their music and prove I meant what I said.

That little band was The Dixie Chicks.

I’ve done this time and time again with authors and bloggers and I can tell you that if there is any sense in this world, J.E. Fishman (A.K.A. Dana Wolff) will be the next legendary author of our time. He’s already proven himself as a NYC agent and editor and he is one HELL of an author (multi-published).

Speaking of HELL, his latest release The Prisoner of Hell Gate written under the pen name Dana Wolff is by far one of the most amazing books I have ever read (and I pretty much hate everything…occupational hazard). Not only is the story sheer genius (Filed under “Stuff I Wish I Would Have Thought Of”) the prose is like fine French cooking.

If you like bare Hemingway writing with no description and lean sentences? This is not for you. But, if you are a lover of words and cannot help but GORGE on “perfect description”? Just plan on highlighting almost everything. My paper copy just became a damn coloring book. I gave up and got the audio so I would actually finish the book.

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In fact, I sent J.E. a message telling him I hated him. *flops on bed* I can’t wriiiiiiiite like that. I suuuuuuuck.

Seriously, I will blog more on this book later, but OMG. Get this book and if you want a MIND-BLOWING experience? Buy it in audio. Whoever did the narration? She needs to read every book I ever listen to for like…ever.

I will stop gushing now and let J.E. take over but like many of my other blogs foretelling the future (like the ones that predicted The Big Six would shrink, that self-pub would explode, that Amazon would HAVE to open a brick-and-mortar, that stretchy pants were here to stay)…one day you will come back to this blog and go, “She was RIGHT!”

Ouch! I got a cramp from patting myself on the back!

Okay, shutting up for realz now. Today, you guys get to learn today from a true master…

***

Two people are sitting on a park bench. What words do they use to talk to one another?

If you answered, How the heck am I supposed to know?, you are well on your way to understanding how to construct good dialog.

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You undoubtedly know, for example, that writing dialog depends upon knowing which characters are speaking, the details of their relationship, and other basic—or not so basic—characteristics they may have. What if one of these characters is mute? What if one of them is a two-year-old child?

And yet, so much dialog we see today feels so generic, so interchangeable. Why? I think that’s because dialog too often ends up working harder in service to the story—What happens next? What information does the author have to get to the reader RIGHT NOW?—than in service to the reader.

I believe that many readers want something more than only to find answers to the ever-crucial question, And then what happened?

Since our characters at times communicate directly with one another, dialog gives us a major tool that we can use to enhance our storytelling in a rounded way, not just to advance events.

Good dialog enriches the reading experience and creates greater empathy with your characters by deepening their individuality.

The main thing to remember when crafting dialog is:

Content and style are NOT two completely different things.

The way your character speaks reflects what your character wants—in that moment and in life.

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Here are some simple dialog techniques to keep in mind while writing. Remember, once you’ve committed to any of these for a particular character, be consistent without overdoing things:

  • Vocabulary. Big words vs small words. Technical jargon vs plain speaking. Foreign words vs straight English. Regional usage vs generic usage. Precocious vs ordinary.
  • Length. Some characters are terse and others are voluble. This distinction alone can speak volumes about personality.
  • Rhythm. This one’s a little harder to put one’s finger on. Listen to the voice of the character in your head. Some people speak fast and others speak slowly. How might you suggest this with phrasing?
  • FormalityHere’s another aspect of speech that can suggest much about your character. Does she use profanity? Does he speak in a stilted manner? Does she use a lot of contractions?
  • Verbal Tics. Maybe your character stutters or speaks with sibilance or has some other verbal tic. This can become an immediate identifier, but be careful not to overuse it.

With these tools at your command, you can begin to think about…

Three Elements of Great Dialog

#1 Your character’s fundamentals:

  • Sex. “Man or woman” might imply a generalization, but perhaps your character goes against type. That would tell us something very powerful every time she opens her mouth.
  • Age. As we all know, a five-year-old boy generally speaks differently from a 30-year-old man, etc.
  • Physical Attributes. Perhaps your character sits in a wheelchair. What verbal techniques might she have mastered to get the attention of people who tower over her?

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#2 Your character’s history:

  • Upbringing in Time. People raised at different times use different vocabularies and constructions. Someone raised in the Seventies, for example, may use a very different vocabulary from a child of the Aughts.
  • Social Status. While the whole concept of social status is a moving target, there is little question that some people play to or against their status (by affecting an upper-class accent or, on the other hand, being more “street” than expected). The way they choose to speak in relation to their standing in society can tell us a lot about their character.
  • Education. Some people are book smart and some people attended the school of hard knocks. A Ph.D. often speaks differently from a high school dropout. Although, of course, you can also have fun playing against type here.
  • Recent History. If your character recently underwent some kind of transformation (before or after the story starts), this may affect the way she speaks.
  • Relationship to Other Characters in the Scene. This element is more contingent than the others, as it depends upon who else is in the scene. A woman speaks to her son differently than she speaks to her male boss. A man speaks to his female boss differently than he speaks to his girlfriend. How your protagonist speaks with subordinates, for instance, might also be very revealing of character.

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#3 Your character’s wants:

  • In Life and/or Story Arc. There is nothing more important in storytelling than what your characters want at any given moment and in the broader narrative arc. Therefore, it helps greatly if the nature of their dialog reflects their desires. If I kind of want a drink of water and you’re withholding it, I might be polite. If I desperately want it, I might be more direct, even rude. On the bigger canvas, if I’m racing against time to save the world from nuclear holocaust, I might choose to dispense with pleasantries. Then again, maybe not, if I have good reason to pursue another tack.
  • Mood in the Scene. None of us has just one way of speaking. How a character chooses to speak at a particular moment in the story might be greatly influenced by her state of mind.

When I’m writing, I try to hear the voices of my characters in my head and remember what makes them distinct from one another. When I self-edit and rewrite, I ask myself questions like: Would that character really use that word?

With all that said, it pays to remember that a novel is entertainment and dialog is part of the entertainment. Therefore (duh) the best dialog is entertaining. Try to be clever without showing how smart you are. Follow the above guidelines AND do so in a fresh and entertaining way. Then you’ll be well on your way to crafting memorable and effective dialog.

***

Thank you! Please show J.E. some love in the comments with any questions or thoughts. This is a really great opportunity to talk to a fantastically talented and proven Big Five author. If you want more on dialog from J.E. check out The Big Thrill for MORE!

And remember bloggers have big hearts, short attention spans and long memories. We DO remember who shows the love! And any comments for my guest count double in the contest. What contest?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of JULY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

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J.E. Fishman writes screenplays and is author of 7 critically acclaimed thrillers and several nonfiction books. His latest novel, The Prisoner of Hell Gate, was written under the pen name Dana I. Wolff and published July 2016 by the Picador imprint of Macmillan.

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  1. #1 by Eric James-Olson on July 18, 2016 - 9:23 am

    Great advice for writing dialogue!

    • #2 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 18, 2016 - 9:28 am

      I agree! There were a lot of tips I had not heard before and not consciously thought of. Thank you for commenting!

    • #3 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:26 am

      Thanks!

  2. #4 by swiveltam on July 18, 2016 - 9:36 am

    Wonderful advice and an awesome checklist. Thanks for having Fishman/Wolff, Kristen. I love that he got right to the good stuff and kept the advice succinct! Yay!

    What do you think of studying play dialogue? I find that helps me a lot. I’ve done a lot of theatre, acting, directing and its my go to when I’m stuck on how to imbue character and info in a line. I don’t write plays, but I find reading them, really helps me in my dialogue writing!

    • #5 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:30 am

      I can’t claim to be an expert on play dialog, but a note of caution: In a play we only “hear” what characters express with words or actions. In a novel, of course, we can get inside a character’s head. This is a critical distinction that suggests to me you can learn from play dialog, but don’t follow it completely. Likewise for screenplays, where of course we cannot “see” a character’s thoughts but we can see visual expression beyond what we see in plays. Every medium is distinct.

      • #6 by swiveltam on July 18, 2016 - 11:25 am

        I would agree. Although, I think its worth looking at if you’re trying to be efficient in your writing and have the dialogue do double duty and use an economy of words without sounding contrived.

        I just read “Save the Cat,” and although not all the ideas apply b/c it’s for screen-writing, I found loads of good advice that is transferable to novel writing.

        It’s still such a long learning journey for me. Thank you so much for your time and advice. I’ll be using your checklist on my dialogue!

  3. #7 by gibsonauthor on July 18, 2016 - 9:54 am

    Reblogged this on s a gibson.

    • #8 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:30 am

      Great!

  4. #9 by enetteventer on July 18, 2016 - 9:59 am

    I really like some of the points made here, especially that social status and upbringing makes a difference. I’ve read some books where the king and the street urchin sounds exactly the same, but then I’ve also read books such as Brandon Sanderson’s “Mistborn” where he showed the difference really well and Ender’s game where the entire culture has ticks in their vocabulary such as saying Ho instead of Hello.
    I think that the writers who overlook dialog is really missing out on a opportunity to create depth in their story.
    This is a great post, I enjoyed reading it🙂

    • #10 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:31 am

      Good point that — a la Ender’s Game — one can also use dialog to convey the argot of a world or sub-world.

  5. #11 by J. Edward Ritchie on July 18, 2016 - 10:01 am

    Great article! Dialogue is certainly a challenge shared by all. It can be very difficult to make it both sound “real” and reflect the character’s personality. Thanks for the tips!

    • #12 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:32 am

      I’m glad you put “real” in quotes because it acknowledges the difference between dialog sounding real and being real-life.

  6. #13 by Donna on July 18, 2016 - 10:05 am

    I’m a regular blog reader of yours and always gain so much information but this one opened my eyes a little more. So many great tips; I’ll need to read it again. Thanks so much for all you do.

    • #14 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:37 am

      Glad you got something from this one.

  7. #15 by T. T Thomas on July 18, 2016 - 10:09 am

    Great blog, fab info, thanks! But…but…”Kristen? Did you just use caveat as a verb???? Yes, I know it’s your blog but–wait lemme finish! Ok, calm down. What I wanted to say is:we love you!”

    • #16 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 18, 2016 - 10:12 am

      I sure DID!😀 My blog and why not? It’s pretty cool as a verb. It is TEXAN-ESE!

      • #17 by Natalia Erehnah on July 18, 2016 - 12:34 pm

        I love making up words. The brilliant Gelett Burgess “A New Dictionary of Words You’ve Always Needed.”

        • #18 by Natalia Erehnah on July 18, 2016 - 12:35 pm

          *wrote* a new dictionary. (Hazards of posting by phone.)

  8. #19 by Kim Kendall on July 18, 2016 - 10:11 am

    I just did a talk to my local writer’s group on characterization. Wish you’d posted this last week! Very good points here. I loved that you pointed out the fallacy in writing advice these days that dialog should always serve the story’s purpose. In fact, I even said that to the group, but I knew deep down that it’s not the whole of the matter, and like you said, trying too hard to follow that bit of advice does not serve the reader (or the story) well. I am looking forward to checking out Fishman’s book. I need a good book to highlight!

    • #20 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:35 am

      Thanks! There’s a lot of advice out in the world. The best practice is never to turn any of it (including mine!) into a fetish, right? In other words, good advice taken too far goes bad.

      • #21 by Kim Kendall on July 18, 2016 - 11:49 am

        Yes absolutely. I wouldn’t want anyone pedestalyzing (new word, does it work?) mine either, although it might feel good for a few minutes.🙂 We all know how little we really know. I’ve been hard pressed for a good candidate for a book to analyze to further my grasp of story elements so I might actually feel good enough about mine to get something published, and my esteem for Kristen’s instincts and insights leads me to give a lot of weight to the things she recommends.

  9. #22 by Walker McKnight on July 18, 2016 - 10:18 am

    Great post! A lovely detailing of the spectrum of attributes that might affect a character’s voice and dialogue. Thanks!

    • #23 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:36 am

      I probably left some out. No doubt you can add if you think about it.

  10. #24 by rijanjks on July 18, 2016 - 10:33 am

    One of the best blogs I’ve ever read on dialogue! Thanks for sharing as I am filing it away to refer to often!!

    • #25 by jefishman on July 18, 2016 - 10:36 am

      Glad you enjoyed it. Happy writing.

  11. #26 by caitreynolds on July 18, 2016 - 10:54 am

    Awesome article! I really like how you point out how people’s physical attributes affects their dialogue (wheelchair, height, etc.). A very good and unique point!

    • #27 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 18, 2016 - 11:20 am

      Cait, one of the characters in PoHG is handicapped and seriously? He nails it! I would have never thought of that kind of depth for dialogue but you will see it in that book.

  12. #28 by Jess Mahler on July 18, 2016 - 11:00 am

    Thank you! I am so sick of the cult of “And then what?” Yes, we need to move the plot forward, but sometimes readers want time to enjoy the flowers (or in this case, the banter).

  13. #29 by cleemckenzie on July 18, 2016 - 11:52 am

    Nothing grabs me and keeps me in a story more than really good character dialogue. And I often flop on the bed after reading a particularly excellent piece of writing with the same thoughts as you do. Must be a writer affliction.

  14. #30 by Talena Winters on July 18, 2016 - 11:57 am

    Great pointers, J.E. Thanks!

    And thanks for adding another author to my “to-read” list, Kristen!

  15. #31 by jenowenby on July 18, 2016 - 11:59 am

    Reblogged this on Jens Thoughts and commented:
    I hope you enjoy this exceptional post from Kristen concerning dialogue. Happy Monday!

  16. #32 by Natalia Erehnah on July 18, 2016 - 12:28 pm

    “Try to be clever without showing how smart you are.” Has me chucking. Dialogue is not my strength, but my “fun and light novel,” something to finish while I continue the Labor of Love that is *the* WIP, is full of what’s supposed to be entertaining dialogue. Off to make if better with these tips.

  17. #33 by Morgan Hazelwood on July 18, 2016 - 12:57 pm

    Great article! Definitely something I’ve struggled with.

    Tone and situation and motivation, I’ve got. Making everyone talk differently? That’s my hard part!

  18. #34 by Southpaw, HR Sinclair on July 18, 2016 - 1:08 pm

    During the last read through, this area I look at with a critical eye–almost play acting the character to make sure it jives.

    BTW, I almost choked on my coffee on the stretchy pants comment.

  19. #35 by Judy Dodge Cummings on July 18, 2016 - 1:52 pm

    “Go buy The Prisoner of Hell Gate right now!” she said.
    “I already did.”

  20. #36 by wuzzupjdogg on July 18, 2016 - 2:14 pm

    Reblogged this on justinssfi and commented:
    cool

  21. #37 by Sarah on July 18, 2016 - 3:09 pm

    Great post–I always learn something new on this blog! Looking forward to checking out The Prisoner of Hell Gate!

  22. #38 by Jana Richards on July 18, 2016 - 3:15 pm

    Dialogue is one of my favorite things in the books I read, especially laugh out loud, witty dialogue. Thanks for all the great advice!

  23. #39 by Jan Rider Newman on July 18, 2016 - 3:40 pm

    “Dialog gives us a major tool that we can use to enhance our storytelling in a rounded way, not just to advance events.” “A novel is entertainment and dialog is part of the entertainment.” Elementary, and so easy for overlook/forget. Thank you for pointing that out.

  24. #41 by authorleannedyck on July 18, 2016 - 5:08 pm

    Try to hear the voice of your character in your head and remember what makes them distinct. Thank you. This is extremely helpful advice.

  25. #42 by Sue Ranscht on July 18, 2016 - 5:50 pm

    Reblogged this on Space, Time, and Raspberries and commented:
    Kristen Lamb proves she has a track record as a prognosticator of future trends, then she predicts J.E. Fishman (A.K.A. Dana Wolff), author of The Prisoner of Hell Gate, “will be the next legendary author of our time.” THEN she has J.E. himself share his insight on writing great dialog. If you’re a writer, you should take a look.

  26. #44 by Sue Ranscht on July 18, 2016 - 5:53 pm

    It seems like it all comes down to knowing your characters inside out, and listening to them talk. Thanks sharing ways to know them, J.E. And thanks for giving us access to his insights, Kristen.

  27. #45 by ratherearnestpainter on July 18, 2016 - 6:12 pm

    I have a particular soft spot for dialogue. This is when I get a flow most easily and I don’t tend to think about it as I’m writing. I think that I instinctively follow some of your advice already. But, one thing I can do is to copy your ideas down, and then critique my dialogue after the fact, as a way of correcting, editing or polishing.

    And, I’m ALWAYS looking for a good recommendation. So, I’ll be checking out The Prisoner of Hell Gate.

    Thanks!

  28. #47 by charcamolson on July 18, 2016 - 9:38 pm

    A good list of considerations to go over when figuring out a character’s dialog. I’m putting this in my favorite’s list. Hopefully I’ll remember it next time I’m trying to tune the speech in my stories.

  29. #48 by Darren on July 19, 2016 - 1:46 am

    I’m bookmarking this post…not just for the really useful dialogue tips, or to remind me to buy the book, but to see if your prediction in stretchy pants pans out 😀

  30. #49 by IchBinMeisterin on July 19, 2016 - 5:26 am

    Excellent! I’m miserable at dialogue, so this will really help.

    I’m a lover of beautiful description and pages and pages of paragraphs, so JE’s book sounds right up my street. When I see a master of words, I feel like a dummy. Then I read THE HELL of their work and try to steal their methods as much as possible. *evil laugh*

  31. #50 by Elizabeth Rose on July 19, 2016 - 7:08 am

    These are terrific pointers. Anything to make dialogue better. There’s something so perfect about really good dialogue. Like you’re there, really watching events unfold.

  32. #51 by Don Massenzio on July 19, 2016 - 8:03 am

    Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.

  33. #53 by vanderso on July 19, 2016 - 9:33 am

    Reblogged this on Just Can't Help Writing and commented:
    Here’s some good stuff on dialogue! I have to say I’ve been reading a lot of dialogue recently that’s either way too generic or waaaaay too cute (the kind that goes on for pages because, it seems, the writer just likes hearing all that clever patter). And I confess, I struggle to stay within these parameters myself.
    I think creating the best dialogue comes down to working with characters who are not generic themselves, who have something to say—and, as this article suggests, are in conflict in some way. For example, one wants something the other doesn’t want to give. The screenwriting books I’ve read called this “no” dialogue. Great stuff happens when “no” underlies the scene. Sound too negative? Next time you’re bored or stuck with your scene, try it.
    One final thought: too much dialogue, and you’ve got a stage play, not a novel, not even a movie. This is one of my greatest challenges: making sure that conflict-filled dialogue scenes are tempered by scenes where characters do things instead of just talk.
    What are your challenges, pet peeves, and strategies when it comes to dialogue?

  34. #56 by lalouziane on July 19, 2016 - 2:28 pm

    I love this post! I’m from the South and getting the “southernisms” out of my dialog is one of my toughest problems. Dialog is crucial to the story. It can reveal so much of the character’s mindset, mood, etc.

    Thanks for this post.

  35. #57 by lalouziane on July 19, 2016 - 2:30 pm

    Reblogged this on Swamp Sass and commented:
    Dialogue. It can really help your story, or… it can hurt.

  36. #58 by myeagermind on July 19, 2016 - 6:11 pm

  37. #59 by Sean P Carlin on July 21, 2016 - 6:30 pm

    No joke: About a half hour before reading this post, a copy of The Prisoner of Hell Gate arrived on my doorstep via Amazon because Rambo author David Morrell spoke so highly of it recently. I grew up in New York City and was fascinated with North Brother Island. Can’t wait to read it!

  38. #60 by xxsarahcaroline on July 21, 2016 - 7:38 pm

    Such great tips! I really need to come back and read this later so it sticks in my memory. I tend to forget (or overlook) how education can affect dialogue. And I’ve never heard someone talk about the rythm of a character’s dialogue, but it’s so true! Some characters talk faster or slower, even if you don’t point it out.

  39. #61 by danfrostwrites on July 27, 2016 - 5:06 pm

    POST—Kristen Lamb—Blog 7-18-16

    Fishman-Wolff takes 45 words to tell me what Stu Silver’s, Throw Mama From The Train, told me in four words: “ The night was sultry.”

    I found Chapter 1 Mary, of The Prisoner of Hell Gate, intriguing and somewhat reminiscent of Alice Hoffman’s first few pages of Turtle Moon.

    But many readers are lovers of story, not words. I don’t need reminding: “How clever this writer is with all those words.”

    Chapter 2 breaks us from intriguing Mary like “schist” (the stop reading and look up this word for metamorphic rock) where those rats live in warrens during Chapter 1. It made me wonder what happened to the rabbits? Oh, well, never mind.

    It’s that old “grab them in the first five pages and don’t let them go” sort of thing. We are not pleased. We prefer: “Hold me like you’ll never let me go.”

    AND NEVER break me out of your story. One reader’s opinion.

    You’re right again, Kristen. The Prisoner of Hell Gate is not for me. Thanks a bunch for the warning. I was skimming before I finished Amazon’s: LOOK INSIDE sample.

    Aren’t opinions a wonderful thing?

    P. S. Speaking of 90’s predictions: Sweethearts of the Rodeo ain’t bad. I’m still looking for that “Midnight Girl from the Sunset Town.”

  1. It Ain’t Just Talk: 3 Crucial Elements of Great Dialog — Kristen Lamb’s Blog | Illuminite Caliginosus
  2. It Ain’t Just Talk: 3 Crucial Elements of Great Dialog | Swamp Sass
  3. It Ain’t Just Talk: 3 Crucial Elements of Great Dialog – Sweaters & Raindrops
  4. Top Picks Thursday! For Readers and Writers 07-28-2016 | The Author Chronicles

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