Idiosyncrasies of the English Language

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Don’t panic. I’m not going all-out academic linguistics on you, but we need to take a moment to consider the quirks of the American English language (as opposed to British). More to the point: what is said vs. what is meant.

When I say: “Wow, that garbage can is full.”

It means: “Get off your butt and lug out that Hefty bag, would ya?”

When my husband says: “Can I help with dinner?”

It means: “Have you been on Pinterest all day or what? Why isn’t the food on the table yet?”

When the sales clerk says: “Have a nice day.”

It means: “I don’t care a rat’s behind what kind of day you have as long as you fill out the survey on the bottom of the receipt and make me look good.”

When words are spoken face to face, it’s easier to decipher because of body language. But when the written word is your medium of choice, it’s all the harder to convey what a character actually means. On the up side, this can be used to an author’s advantage by choosing words that convey characterization via dialogue.

Or it can leave your reader scratching their head and relegating your book to the bottom of the stack on their nightstand.

What to do?

The best way to make each of your characters say what they really mean (and not give the reader a different expectation) is to know your character well before they speak. This requires some groundwork before you begin a new manuscript. Yes, this takes time, but in the long run it will pay off.

Know your characters. Know them well. Then use the words that flow out of their mouths to solidify who they are in your reader’s mind. Those are the kind of characters that stick with a reader long after they’ve closed the book.

But Don’t Overdo It

I love sarcasm. Give me a character who’s snappy and snippy with their dialogue and bam—instant like fest as far as I’m concerned. So it surprises me when my snarky personalities aren’t always well loved. What’s the deal?

Apparently I’m in the minority. Surprisingly, sarcasm doesn’t head the list of likeable traits, which can work against an author while crafting characters. It is your job as a writer to make your reader fall in love with your characters . . . or at least want to have coffee with them.

What authors do you know who have mastered the art of dialogue?

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Daring Dialogue

I have to confess that dialogue is one of my favorite things to write. It also is the easiest for me. Often times when I start a scene, I’ll just lay out the dialogue first.

CoupleFightingMy love of dialogue likely stems from my real life job as a pediatric ER nurse. Communication in the ER is very quick and to the point. Cutting at times. There is little room for fluffing up someone’s feathers emotionally when you’re trying to save a life.

At the most recent ACFW conference in Indianapolis, I was fortunate to take James Scott Bell’s class called Quantum Story where he touched on several different areas to take your novel to the next level. Jim is a great teacher and I highly recommend any of his classes or books on writing (of which there are many).

One area Jim discussed was his eight essentials of dialogue and I’m going to list them here. Remember, these come from a master teacher and storyteller and not little ole me who is still learning a lot about writing.

Good dialogue:

1. Is essential to the story. Fictional dialogue should never sound like “real life,” where lots of mundane facts are often communicated. “Hi.” “How are you?” “I’m fine—how are you?” It should communicate something inherently necessary to the story.

2. It flows from one character to the other.

3. It should have conflict or tension. There is the overall story conflict but then there is also microtension. I first heard this term from Donald Maass and he explains it as the tension amond words, sentences, and paragraphs that propels the reader to keep turning pages.

4. Just the right tone.

5. Just right for each character. All your story peeps should not sound the same. How can you differentiate between them so the reader can identify them? The best example I’ve seen of this type of characterization is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. Each chapter is in a different character’s POV but she never is obvious about it—like putting the character’s name as a chapter heading (which I have seen done). The characterization/dialogue is so unique in differing POVs that you don’t need extra help to identify the character.

6. Unpredictable.

7. Compressed. Characters shouldn’t talk for paragraphs at length. Give the reader some white space as relief.

8. There should be subtext.

Here is one of my favorite exchanges in Peril, my latest medical thriller. The lead heroine, Morgan Adams, is not sure she’s all that capable of holding onto this life. Her husband, Tyler, worries about her committing suicide and he’s just come home and found a bloodied knife on the counter. This section occurs just after she’s found alive.

  “You can’t scare me like that again. You are killing me with this thoughtlessness you have for your life.”

  “You found the knife?”

  “Yes, I found it! And the blood dripping down the counter.” He grabbed each of her hands and caressed his thumbs over her pulse points of uncut skin.

   “It’s not my blood.”

   “Then whose is it?”

   “Our neighbor’s.”

   “And if I ask her?”

   “You don’t believe me?”

    He combed his fingers through his hair. “Morgan, it’s as if you’re holding on to the cliff with one hand and lifting your fingers up one at a time.”

   She brushed past him and headed into the master bedroom. “I wouldn’t have done anything today.”

   And just like that, all the tightness in his chest returned.

What do you think? What are some techniques you incorporate to write powerful dialogue?

This post first appeared on the ACFW blog. Hope you’ll check it out for more great posts about writing.

Making Dialogue Work

Dialogue is one of the hardest working tools we have because we ask it to do so much. It has to convey information, develop and move the plot, increase tension and conflict all while sounding natural.

Perhaps most importantly, dialogue must engage the reader through revealing our characters. It brings them to life and shows their personalities, their quirks, their goals, and their fears.

The most effective and real dialogue comes when we know our characters as intimately as possible. Whether our story is plot-driven or character-driven, we have to invest the time in writing biographies, character analyses, Meyers-Briggs assessment, journals, interviewing them, and experimenting with how they speak, act, think, and feel. And they’ll still surprise us.

In my first novel, Journey to Riverbend, I had a problem with the story arc of my female protagonist, Rachel. She was a former prostitute who received Jesus. She was also striving to open a dress-making business in a town where many were hostile to her because of her past. It wasn’t until I interviewed her that I learned Rachel was a feisty, determined young woman with numerous questions about her new-found faith, anxieties about her future, and wondering if love could ever be part of her life.

And I discovered her voice changed depending on her situation. She had a business voice she used with customers and an almost child-like awe when she talked about her faith. At times her prostitute “don’t mess with me” voice came into play. When the mayor attempted to get too familiar, Rachel stopped him cold with the whispered line, “I’m making dresses for your wife. I can make her look like a laughing stock while convincing her she looks like Queen Victoria.”

With these new insights, Rachel’s dialogue became stronger, more connected to her emotions at the moment, more realistic. It revealed more of her personality, her dreams, her fears.

Rachel came to life through her dialogue.

Make the time to know your characters. They’ll reward you with stronger personalities and become people that readers will keep turning pages for.

How has dialogue allowed you to develop your characters even further? What have you learned about your characters through dialogue that surprised you?

Do You Hear The Voices?

Dialogue should be short, snappy, and punchy. Image: photostock / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Dialogue that is short, snappy, and punchy, engages other characters as well as the reader. Dialogue is meant to be experienced, not studied. Halting over a line of dialogue can interrupt the reader’s experience.” ~~ Sol Stein

At a recent writer’s conference, an agent said dialogue could make the difference in making a request for more of a writer’s work. She takes the first five pages of a manuscript and looks for the white space created by dialogue. Then she puts the manuscript aside and picks up the next one.

From that conversation, I gathered dialogue is an important part of novel writing. Internal monologue is not dialogue. So, even if no one else is in the room, the character should talk aloud to himself, or to his pet.

Conversations in real life often have little or no purpose. In fiction, that’s a killer. What do you hear as the characters meet and greet? Is it meaningless chitchat? Or are they talking about anything and everything to avoid the deeper subject they know they should discuss? That’s great. Avoidance dialogue is called subtext.

Who’s talking? Do the characters sound alike? Are they predictable? Do they always say what you’d expect them to say?

If so, the writer’s in trouble. You see, dialogue has to sound natural, but it also has to be more condensed and much more interesting than everyday language.

Info dumps are boring. Just as you don’t enjoy listening to a person who talks on and on without giving others a chance to get a word in edgewise, neither do your readers. Most exchanges in dialogue should be brief. Consider using five word exchanges or less in your dialogue. Avoid using more than three sentences without a break or at least an action tag on the part of the speaker.

Can the reader visualize the characters? Characters don’t talk in a vacuum. To avoid the talking heads syndrome show us what they’re doing. Is Mary cooking dinner? Is LeRoy chopping wood? And by the way, is the ax dull?

Speaking of what’s happening, in your own writing, don’t mix the actions of one character with the dialogue of another. Be sure each speaker gets his own paragraph. Even if the character only uses one word. Make it easy for your reader to know who is talking.

And while we’re on the subject of give and take between characters, teach them to give another character a chance to react. Short dialogue paragraphs leave that coveted white space and increase pacing.

Last but not least, dialogue should move the story along. Do the characters have an agenda? Does dialogue reveal the different sides of an issue?

For dialogue to do its job, it needs to create an emotional effect in the reader. How much of the dialogue reveals disagreements and misunderstandings that affect the other characters’ goals? Does it increase suspense and uncertainty?

Q4U: Would you care to share a tip for stronger dialogue?