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Writers Talk About Writing

Writing Method: The Power of Dialogue

Last month we talked to novelist Laurel Dewey about her invaluable techniques for charting a novel, which got a huge response from Visual Thesaurus readers. Well, Laurel, we can't get enough of you! We called her again, this time to ask how she crafted such memorable dialogue in her novel Protector. Laurel graciously shared her writing secrets:

VT: In our last conversation we talked about how you've applied techniques from screenwriting to mapping out novels. Do you take the same approach with dialogue?

Laurel: Screenwriting taught me how to write good dialogue. In a screenplay, you tell your story almost completely through dialogue with maybe 2% of minor direction between the sections of dialogue. In my training I was really versed in dialogue as opposed to narrative, for which I'm grateful.

Unfortunately, I've found dialogue can too often be the worst part of a lot of novels. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because a novelist is trained to express a character's feelings more through narrative than doing it through the character's own dialogue. But for me, if a writer can't nail the dialogue as well as he/she nails the narrative, it tends to pull me out of the whole storytelling experience. I end up cringing and wincing when I really want to be drawn into how the characters express themselves.

In so many books, the dialogue sounds stilted and terribly false, especially when children speak or during love scenes. You see kids saying lines like, "Oh, mommy, look! That flower is pretty." Or "Daddy, may I please have another cookie?" These are actual passages from books I've read recently. I find myself cringing because they just don't sound real. Kids just don't talk like that.

As for love scenes, those can be brutal when it comes to realistic dialogue. "Oh, Joe. I love you like I've never loved another man," followed by, "Yes, Jill, I agree. If only the day was longer and I could hold you in my arms another hour?" Again, that's not real. If someone spoke to you like that you'd start laughing -- or running. The only place people talk like that is in badly written novels. I also find -- and I'm sorry if this is one of those male versus female things -- that male writers often don't know how to write dialogue for their female characters. A lot of times male writers end up making their female characters sound like dim light bulbs.

VT: Ouch

Laurel: Especially when it's a little coquettish scene between a man and a woman. I'll read it aloud and think, we don't sound like that.

VT: So how do you avoid these pitfalls?

Laurel: The most important thing to understand is that really good dialogue has a rhythm. It's like a drum beat. Neil Simon is a great example. When you listen to a Neil Simon play -- and I say listen to a Neil Simon, not watch it -- it has a verifiable Neil Simon sound to it that no other play has. You need to listen to great dialogue that has been written by the real masters who understand how to do it. For example, old Woody Allen, the Woody Allen of "Annie Hall," is just fabulous. Just listen to the rhythm of Woody Allen. There's no other person who does it like he did in that movie. My reference point here is films but you can apply this kind of rhythm to classic novels such as "Huckleberry Finn" or "To Kill A Mockingbird."

Another great dialogue example is Preston Sturges. Ever watch his comedy classics from the 1930s? His movies had great dialogue -- a wonderful, very eloquent and adult banter that was just beautiful. There was never an excessive word in the dialogue. It was incredibly well thought out.

VT: How do you develop an ear for rhythm?

Laurel: You listen. Listen to people talk. Listen to people at, say, a wine and cheese mixer. I don't really enjoy those things but when I've been forced to endure them I turn it around and think, I'm just going to listen to people talk. I listen to natural ways that people speak.

VT: You start picking up the rhythms.

Laurel: Yes. I'll sometimes hover around two or three people talking, have my back to them and listen to their exchange. That's how you can pick up on phrasing because you're not engaged in looking at them. So a wine and cheese mixer has a certain cast of characters. But I encourage every writer to jettison their comfort zone and listen to people from all walks of life converse. I'll purposely put myself in places, say, where truck drivers gather. When I was driving to different book signings for my novel "Protector," I pulled off the highway at a truck stop for this very purpose. I know it sounds weird but I wanted to hear different people from different regions of the country.

I would sit next to a table of truckers and I would listen to their banter, listen to how vastly different their talk was from the people at the wine and cheese mixer. Gone was the self-importance from the mixer and here was the flat, often non-melodic tone that danced between the newspaper headlines and the health of one of the men's "tickers." When you start to really listen to the way different kinds of people talk, you begin to absorb it into your psyche. Then you can honestly transfer it into your writing.

VT: But it's more than just rhythm.

Laurel: Absolutely! You pay attention not just to the rhythm but to the pauses and the way people naturally interrupt or step on other people's words because that's what happens in real conversations. People don't naturally wait for somebody else to finish. Start paying attention to how people jump on other people's words - and put that in your dialogue. Readers relate to it because they subconsciously recognize this from their daily life.

VT: It's so interesting that you seek out different people and listen to them to develop your dialogue.

Laurel: I once had a temp job at an electrical contracting company where I hung out with a bunch of electricians, who, by the way, have some of the bawdiest mouths besides construction workers and plumbers. There was a little vent in my office -- this is going to sound so awful -- but there was this vent that connected to the one in the lunch room. I would open up the vent to listen to the private conversations between these guys at lunch. It gave me incredible exposure to a life that I'd never have otherwise. Whenever I passed through the lunchroom, these guys would stop talking and start acting different in front of me, a young woman. But what I heard through the vent was completely real "guy talk." The conversations were pretty facile with oddly placed interjections of filthy jokes.

What was so fascinating was that there was this one guy in the group who was a very sensitive, sweet man but through the vent I heard how he felt pressured around the other guys. They were tough and crude and foul mouthed and all that -- and he was too, because he thought that's what he had to do. I could tell he did not want to really be doing it, though. I could really sense it in the way that he would respond to them. I used this experience in a story that I wrote. I used the way that he would hold back, the way that sounded. Remember, I couldn't see them, I was just hearing them.

VT: By just listening you could be really sensitive to the talking.

Laurel: Yes, crouched down beside the vent listening to these guys talk was so incredibly instructive. I used so much of what I got from them because when I saw how they interacted with me, it was completely different. They were very mannered, very nice and polite, never once knowing that I had an insight to their other side. As a writer, if you can eavesdrop -- and not get caught! -- there's no better way to understand this.

VT: Ha! Good advice. What other considerations do you keep in mind when you're crafting dialogue?

Laurel: Avoid staccato dialogue. Avoid writing things like "Yes, it was nice." You can obviously throw these in occasionally but I notice many writers will say things like "It was nice," "He was good." It's like Hemingway has invaded their brain. What happens is, unless you're actually Hemingway, it starts to sound like "da da da, da da da" -- a kind of staccato rhythm that a lot of writers do, unfortunately.

This will irritate the reader after a while. They'll start to pick up on this back and forth. Have you ever read courtroom scenes in a book? Now those obviously have a lot of back and forth, back and forth, but if you do that continually it's obviously going to get annoying.

VT: What other techniques do you use?

Laurel: We have a term in screenwriting called "buttoning," as in how to "button" a scene. It's originally a TV term that refers to a witty line or a summing up line that wraps up a scene. Neil Simon was a great master of this. I always button a scene.

VT: Why?

Laurel: It gives a dialogue sequence a subconscious wrap up that essentially informs the reader the scene is over, and we're now going on to the next narrative or the next chapter or whatever.

Oh, and one more thing while I'm thinking of it. Avoid starting sentences in dialogue with "Well" or "Okay." This one of the things I had to get over. Yes, I know it's the way people naturally talk. People go "well, blah blah blah" or "okay, da da da." But it doesn't work in writing if you overuse it. It just clutters the flow of dialogue after awhile.

Another important element to writing good dialogue is that it should define the character. This is really important. I can't stress that enough.

VT: What do you mean?

Laurel: Dialogue is a character's personal imprint. Each character's cadence should be unique only to them. Even with the minor characters. I have characters with only two or three scenes in "Protector" but I gave each of them a character imprint based on their dialogue. And you define your characters not just by the words they speak but by the rhythm of their speech. So I give each character a rhythm.

For example, the main character in my book, Detective Jane Perry, will always say the first thing that crosses her mind. She's on edge. And she's often crude. She's the only person in the book with dialogue that's sarcastic, a little more cutting, a little more quick. She tends to interrupt people more than other people in the book do. She's impatient so she's never letting anyone finish a sentence. That's an imprint of Jane Perry.

It's also important to make sure a character's speaking words that he or she would actually say.

VT: How would you know that?

Laurel: This goes back to what we discussed in our first interview, knowing your character. I remember when my husband David was reading a draft of "Protector" and he said to me that I have to change a line of Jane's dialogue because she would never have used a certain word. And he was right. It was one little word, and it wouldn't make a difference if I'd used it or not, but Jane Perry simply wouldn't have said it. So you've got to make sure your characters are using appropriate words and terms that would fit them.

VT: Interesting.

Laurel: Remember, dialogue draws us in. Start chapters with one or two lines of dialogue. I always love that in a book. It hooks the reader when they see people talking.

VT: It's immediate, you want to know what they're talking about.

Laurel: It puts you right into the scene. Okay, while we're talking about scenes, here's another important technique: Play your dialogue out loud. It's kind of schizophrenic but if you can get into the characters and play them both in a scene then you can get a rhythm and pattern going that can lead to jewels of dialogue. I do it all the time. If I ever get stuck with dialogue I wander around my house and start playing the scene in my head back and forth. I just improv the whole thing and eventually my characters start to speak.

You get this repartee going back and forth -- and get the energy going that way. Banter is great if it's something your characters would do naturally. A quick back and forth can break up long narrative passages. Use banter anywhere that it works. I've got a lot of banter in "Protector" and also the sequel that I wrote, "Redemption." But you have to be careful that it doesn't get too cutsie or gets over the top.

Another tip is that instead of telling us something in the narrative, show it with a scene of dialogue. That is to me much more inviting. But don't forget that dialogue should move the story forward just like narrative does. Unfortunately, though, writers often get chatter confused with dialogue. I just finished a book -- I won't say which -- that was so full of chatter, I mean there was no point to most of the dialogue scenes. They just went nowhere.

Other thoughts -- wait, is this too much?

VT: No, not at all. Go, Laurel, go!

Laurel: Don't try to convey too much information all at one time in an attempt to move your story forward. This goes back to understanding the natural way in which people relate information and tell stories. It's a farce, for example, for a character to say something like, "Hi, Bob. I haven't seen you since last fall when we traveled to Egypt to dig in the tombs at the Valley of the Kings. How's your wife? Is she still struggling with drug addiction since the untimely death of her father to suicide?" You might laugh at all that but I've read this kind of freakish dialogue.

If you really want to get metaphoric, you can use dialogue to convey subtext between characters. For example in "Protector" I purposely had only two characters use the same really offensive word -- I'm not going to say which. I did this to demonstrate a mirror image quality that these two characters shared that has a great deal to do with how the story eventually plays out. I'm not going to mention the characters because I'd rather people figure it out for themselves but since the book deals a great deal with the dark and light and good and evil, the mirror image concept I developed through the dialogue worked well.

These characters were the only ones that used this word and eventually you start to realize, hmm, the only characters in the book that are really bugging me are these two. I've had a few book clubs that are really into character development write to tell me that they picked up exactly on what I'm talking about.

Finally, once you are satisfied with your novel, go over the dialogue sections and start to seriously refine the lines. I always do this on my final draft. Play the scenes out loud so you can hear the rhythm. Cut any and all extraneous words so that you have a taut scene. This can be a painstaking process but I've been able to cut an additional 10 or more pages out of a novel when I tighten the dialogue.

I've given you a lot of meat on the bone, but our conversation about dialogue is really, really important. If more writers would learn the inviting and inventive techniques of dialogue, I think that readers would enjoy modern fiction a lot more.

VT: Amen. Thank you for all this, Laurel.

Laurel: My pleasure.

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