Confession: When I first started trying to write novels (roughly five years ago), other than having a strong grasp of the English language, I really had no idea what went into “crafting” a novel. “How hard can it be?” I wondered. “You have an idea, you put it down, and when you’re done, maybe someone else will enjoy reading it… Right?”
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Just… I was so naive.
I know: this is probably upsetting to all of you who knew what you were doing from the beginning. But it’s true. All the tropes we’re meant to avoid, the cliche things that make readers want to scratch their eyes out, the NEVER-DO-THESE-THINGS-EVER? These things are all new to me. As in, I didn’t hear/know/learn about them until the last year because I’ve seriously been trying to land an agent, and have ended up learning more about the craft of writing instead. (Not a bad thing to have happen, but I’m still hoping for that agent.)
Anyway, as I’ve had CPs and editors rip apart my work, the one thing they always compliment me on is my dialogue.
YOU MEAN I’M NATURALLY GOOD AT SOMETHING?
This was a pleasant surprise, because I always told and never showed. I could adverb the heck out of something and still find room for adjectives galore. (Confession two: I might still struggle with adjectives…) Oh, and my characters always described themselves in the mirror, and my chapters rarely ended with cliff hangers, and… You get the picture.
So, since this seems to be the one area where I excel, I thought I would share some of my basic tips with you. Dialogue is tough to nail because if you’re a skilled writer, it’s hard to remember that the rules don’t always apply when your characters are talking. And what’s the result of perfectly crafted prose in dialogue? It usually ends up sounding stifled, unrealistic, and bulky.
Now that’s just unnatural. And in my opinion, the #1 most important thing about dialogue is that is must sound natural!
So you might be asking yourself, “Well, how do we accomplish this, Jym?”
And I’m here to say, “It’s quite simple, writerly friends. Just break these three rules and your dialogue should be in good shape.”
Rule One: Don’t use Adverbs… Except (sparingly) in Dialogue.
If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know how I feel about adverbs. I won’t bore you by repeating myself. But if I’m going to use an adverb or encourage anyone to use one, it would be in dialogue.
For example, if you try to remove the adverbs from the following sentences, they either don’t make sense, lose some of their emphasis, or become too bulky:
“No, not exactly.”
“You really want to do this?”
(An exception: Depending on the time period of your piece, “It’s probable” could be more appropriate, but I’ll expound on that in a bit.) As you can see, adverbs can serve a purpose. But always read your work aloud to determine if the adverb you’ve chosen is absolutely necessary and be sure not to overuse them.
Rule Two: Unpack your “Thought Verbs”… Except for a few in dialogue.
Thought verbs are words like wonder, realize, know, wish, believes, understands, and thinks. In the narration of your book, these can almost always go. (Again, go read Chuck Palahniuk’s article on this. It’s just amazing and I can’t say it any better than he did.) But within dialogue, rather than unpack them, some thought verbs just read better.
“Did you know about this?”
“I wish I’d have thought of it.”
“But he believes what he’s saying!”
Technically, you can unpack these sentences. But I wouldn’t. As you get the feel for which verbs need to be unpacked, it’ll get easier to decide which ones you can leave alone in your dialogue and which ones can just be cut. (I talked about this a little in my last post about making your words count, but I’ve found that “I know” and “I realize” can be cut more often than not.)
Rule Three: Always use spellcheck/ real words/ proper syntax… Except when you’re creating a dialect/speech impediment/ colloquialism in dialogue.
I’m going to state the exceptions to this right now, before I get hounded by the voice police. If you’ve read The Help by Kathryn Stockett then you already know that WHEN DONE WELL this rule can be broken in narration too and can serve to create a moving/unique voice. But you HAVE to be consistent, and you HAVE to make sure it serves the story, rather than detracts from it.
And now for me to share my unpopular opinion, but even within dialogue, I’d caution against using too many “make believe” or “characterized” words. Please don’t kill me for saying this, but I had such a hard time with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the way Jim’s lines were written. Now, I love Mark Twain, I truly do, but I felt Jim’s speech was way overkill.
Example: “I ain’ gwyne to len’ no mo’ money ’dout I see security. Boun’ to git yo’ money back a hund’d times, de preacher says! Ef I could git de ten cents back, I’d call it squah, en be glad er de chanst.”
I realize he did this intentionally, but especially in this day and age where we strive for political correctness and hope to avoid stereotypes, I think there’s a middle ground we ought to be aiming for.
“It ain’t what it looks like.”
“You gotta be kidding me.”
(If a character is drunk or otherwise impaired a few mashed up words can be comical.) “I dunno where’am at.”
If used often enough for long enough, some of our made-up words even make it into the dictionary! (IE, gonna, wanna, doh!) Like anything in writing though, just make sure your choices are intentional and be careful not to over do it.
And in case that wasn’t enough, here’s a few other tips and tricks for more natural sounding dialogue:
1) Don’t overuse proper nouns. When you’re talking with someone, how often do you actually say his/her name? Read through your dialogue and make sure your characters aren’t naming each other with every sentence. When you’re writing scenes with several characters, you can get away with saying proper names more often so that the reader knows who is addressing whom. But you can also say, Todd turned to Steffi and asked, “Want to get out of here?”
2) Use ellipsis and em dashes properly and with restraint. If your characters are trialing off every other sentence or pausing constantly, it’s going to mess with your flow and bore the reader. Em dashes should be used to show when a character is being interrupted, and ellipsis should be used to show when he/she is dropping off mid-thought or for dramatic emphasis. Remember, the more you use ellipsis, the less effective they become.
3) Pay attention to your time period! Dialogue will be most believable when it fits the speech patterns and colloquialisms of your MS’s time.
For example: In a contemporary piece, a character might say. “Don’t pay any attention to her. She’s just jelly.” (As I cringe, because I’m not that cool.)
Whereas an MS set in the eighteen hundreds might say, “Pay her no mind. She’s merely jealous.”
While these two variations work well in their own times, if used in each other’s period they would clearly be anachronistic and would pull the reader from the story.
4) Above all else, READ YOUR MS ALOUD! Some things that sound great in our heads, sound plain wrong when we read them out loud. So if you read nothing else aloud, at least promise that you’ll read your dialogue, and in return I promise you’ll catch a million little things that would have escaped you otherwise. (But really, just read the whole thing out loud, okay? Besides, it’s great practice for those book readings someday, am I right?)
Happy dialogue-ing, friends!