Monday, September 16, 2013

We All Talk–But Writing Dialogue is Tricky by James R. Callan

Let's welcome James R. Callan back to Seriously Write with some tips on writing good dialogue. Enjoy!

We All Talk–But Writing Dialogue Is Tricky
by James R. Callan
Dialogue is deceptive. We all talk, so there is a tendency to believe dialogue is easy and presents no problems.

Not true.

Writing good, engaging dialogue takes care, patience, and a lot of practice. The topic is too big to cover in this blog. I’ve written an entire book on creating good dialogue. So, let’s just look two aspect of the subject.

Natural dialogue, the conversations you hear and engage in every day, is replete with unnecessary words, information that is redundant, pleasantries that are mostly ignored.

“How are you?”
“I’m fine. And you?”
“Doing well.”

This does not mean that either person is doing well. It’s just how we start a conversation.

Here’s an example of a piece of a normal, natural conversation. Ann meets her friend Mary.

“Hi, Mary. How’re you doing?”
“Good. And you?”
“Things are great.”
“Glad to hear that. Been to any good movies recently?”
“No. Too busy getting the kids ready for school.”
“Oh, it is getting close to that time of year, isn’t it.”
“Too close; too fast.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Have you seen Joan lately? I’ve called and gone by and I never can catch her.”

There’s a typical conversation between two women meeting at the post office. In fact, what we want to get to is that Joan is missing. The novel dialog should start where we want to be.

“Hi, Mary. Have you seen Joan lately? I’ve called and gone by and I never can catch her.”

We move the plot along. We don’t waste the reader’s time. We don’t slow down the pacing. We improve the novel. So, in dialogue, cut the fat. Be ruthless. Whack out what doesn’t either move the plot along or improve the reader’s understanding of a character.

The second point is, with all deference to English teachers, do not be tied to complete sentences. Many people leave out words. Sometimes a pronoun. Sometimes a verb. And other words as well. Of course, this depends on who is talking. Now, if the speaker is a professor of English, probably everything he says comes in perfectly formed sentences. Most people leave out a few words. And some characters would be perfectly at home leaving out many words.

“John, will you come here, please.”
“Sure. What you want?”
“I need someone to move with extreme care this antique table. I am unable to move it myself.”
“Too heavy for ya?”
“Yes. I’m afraid I might damage it if I tried to move it.”
“Not for me.”

Here we have one character using perfect English, and the other character leaving out subject and verb, using incomplete sentences, violating many grammar rules. But it’s okay. It happens in dialogue and reflects the educational level of the character.

Let me emphasize this point. It is not only okay, but desirable, because it helps define the character.

And most important, you must listen to your dialogue. Read it aloud. Listen to how it sounds. Does it reflect your characters? If not, redo it.


About the author:

After a successful career in mathematics and computer science, receiving grants from the National Science Foundation and NASA, and being listed in Who’s Who in Computer Science and Two Thousand Notable Americans, James R. Callan turned to his first love—writing.  He wrote a monthly column for a national magazine for two years, and published several non-fiction books.  He now concentrates on his favorite genre, mystery/suspense, with his fifth book released in 2013.

About the book:

When the Sweet Adelines International Barbershop Competition brings Tina's chorus to San Antonio, she kicks back. For a week, she can forget about her career as a police officer. Time for fun, glitz, and as much a cappella singing as she wants-and she wants to hear it all. Who knows, there may even be four winners' crowns for their local quartet! But when two members die singing "Mister Sandman" in front of the Alamo, Tina discovers that bullets and barbershop are anything but a harmonious combination. Although police work was the last thing on her mind, Tina sifts through racks of sequined costumes and whispered gossip, desperate to discover who might want the lead and bass singers dead. Could it be the protesters who hate that the Sweet Adelines turned the Alamo into a theater backdrop? The rival quartet that lost a contract because of their group? The director with a reputation as a ladies' man and a bad habit of poaching the best singers? As the notes and the stakes rise higher, it becomes obvious that the killer has more on his mind than a song, and Tina may be next in the crosshairs.

Learn more about James here:

Amazon Author Page: