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Dialogue

re: Got a Fix for “Stiff” Dialogue?

in Dialogue by

Dear Editor…

I’m having trouble making the dialogue in my mystery sound realistic. The criticism I keep getting is the dialogue sounds stiff. Can you help me?

Sincerely,
Real Talker

Dear Real Talker…

I’ve got something for you to try out: repetition. Fictional dialogue can be so sculpted and logical that it feels “stiff.” A little apparent sloppiness in the form repetition can make your characters sound like real people more focused on chasing their point than organizing their thoughts for clarity. (Of course, you will be clear.) As a bonus, the repetition can help reveal what the character thinks most important. I hope the following example will illuminate this suggestion (though admittedly it’s perhaps a bit extreme; I don’t have the luxury of space to show a subtler repetition across the course of a conversation): “They could’ve just given me the money. Would it have killed them? They’re rich. Parting with the green wouldn’t send them to the poorhouse. Parting with the green would’ve avoided this whole stupid mess.” Character stomps away. “Stupid rich people.”

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Which Swear Words are Allowed in YA Lit?

in Dialogue/Narrative Voice/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a YA novel. Quick question: How are words like screw, damn, cr*p, and sh*t looked upon? (Though I think I know the answer to the last one!)

Thanks,
Weighing My Words

Dear Weighing My Words…

Depends on the eyes doing the looking, of course. But in general, screw, damn, and crap fall within the realm of slang or casual speech now, so use them if they fit the book’s tone and concept. Don’t use them if your sole reason is “because that’s how kids really talk.” If dialogue were “real talk,” you’d be writing a lot of stuttering and ums. Sh*t is trickier, being more cuss word than general-use slang. (Notice we both use an asterisk when typing it? That’s telling.) It’s not the F-bomb, but it disturbs enough people that if you can write around it you might want to. Again, consider the project. With gritty topics like drug use, strong words can be par for the course. Option: Use now, discuss with your editor later. She won’t reject a project for this alone. If she feels such words aren’t right for a book about which she’s otherwise passionate, she’ll discuss rather than nix.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Tricks for “Telling” in Dialogue

in Dialogue by

Dear Editor…

I tried to explain to a writer friend that dialogue can be “telling” the reader just as much as narrative can. I gave examples of restating events that happened and laundry lists of events that characters will be doing or experiencing. Am I right? Can dialogue also tell instead of show?

Sincerely,
Anon.

Dear Anon….

Dialogue can indeed “tell.” Done occasionally, such telling can be a viable tool. Done too often, too blatantly, or in the ways you pointed out, dialogue that “tells” risks being an unnatural, unengaging info dump. A trick for informing readers via dialogue is to craft the chats so they seem to be about something other than the info being shared. In Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan books, characters often speak of complex geopolitical plot points during cat-and-mouse exchanges, with the characters threatening each other, verbally jousting, and then, sometimes, forfeiting secrets. These discussions are as much about the characters’ constantly shifting power dynamics as the info being shared. In one info-heavy exchange, Westerfeld renders “telling” dialogue palatable by wrapping it in action: a man makes a boy explain political alliances to him while they spar with sabers. The swordfighting makes the scene fun, but Westerfeld pushes the moment beyond info and action by turning the sparring into a lesson about reading enemies’ maneuverings in politics and in life. That’s “telling” well done.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Do I Capitalize “God” in Dialogue and Internal Thoughts?

in Dialogue/Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

When using the word God in a dialogue sentence or thought, like Oh my G** or G**d***it, must I capitalize it? In my faith I’m taught not to use the Lord’s name in vain, but using curse words is true to my character. I’ve seen it both ways and I feel better when I leave it lower case because it could mean any god not my God.

Thanks,
L.

Dear L….

The only rigid rule for capitalizing “God” in dialogue and thoughts is that you do so when using it as a pronoun: “Joe, God won’t like that.” Beyond that, you can let your character decide. Some characters say “Oh my god!” as a generic expression with no thought to religion at all. For them, lowercase works. They aren’t directly invoking God. For a character with strong religious beliefs, the word “God” almost certainly has religious association whenever it’s used, thus you’d capitalize it in her dialogue and thoughts—if she’d utter the name in vain at all. For her, “God damn it” would really be a plea to God on some level. For characters in the middle, “oh my god” is likely generic so lowercase works unless you just plain don’t like it, but you can avoid your discomfort or offense to readers by using the casual “oh gawd” or picking a different exclamation or curse. There are plenty! Or, how about just skipping the curse and using body language and prop interaction instead? A guy silently punching a wall can be richer than any curse word.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: How Reading John Green Can Help Your Dialogue

in Dialogue/Narrative Voice by

Dear Editor…

I’m really struggling with writing dialogue that sounds like real people talking. Can you throw a struggling writer a tip?

Thanks,
Tongue-Tied

Dear Tongue-Tied…

Try something that helps John Green’s dialogue and first person narration feel casual and thus “real”: He replaces the articles a, an, and the with the demonstrative adjectives this and these. From The Fault in Our Stars: “There was this tunnel that these two kids kept crawling through over and over…” When I sub in the usual articles, the sentence gets stiffer and thus feels less like a real person talking: “There was a tunnel that two kids kept crawling through over and over…” I prefer the subtlety of this technique to writing you know or like into dialogue. Give that a whirl and see how it works for you. Mix it in with other techniques, of course, as variety helps give writing a natural flow.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Resources for Richer Characters, Plots, Voice, Dialogue

in Characterization/Dialogue/Narrative Voice/Plot by

Dear Readers…

Two things floated to the top of the Internet this week that you might find useful for beefing up characters, plot, voice, and dialogue, so The Editor is featuring them today: “Deborah Halverson on Why Perfectly Nice People Make Perfect Bad Guys” and The Editor’s FREE webinar “Four Fixes for a ‘Flat’ Story”. Read on for descriptions and links…

“Deborah Halverson on Why Perfectly Nice People Make Perfect Bad Guys”The Editor’s guest post on the great Cynsations blog, which is featuring and tweeting “best of” guest posts while host Cynthia Leitich Smith is on summer hiatus.  Excerpt: “Some antagonists seem perfectly nice when you first meet them. They can have very obvious moral centers. They might even be friends with the protagonist—or would be, under different circumstances. But in the circumstances you devise to get and keep your story rocking, that character provokes your protagonist, challenges him or throws roadblocks in his path or pushes him into situations of actual physical peril. The antagonist causes wonderful, juicy conflict even if he still seems inherently nice otherwise…. How can you make your antagonist believably sympathetic? Here are five ways…”

“Four Fixes for a ‘Flat’ Story” webinar w/ The Editor & Katie Davis – This 1.5-hr webinar covers four ways to fix your story when an editor tells you, “I couldn’t get into the story…. The story feels flat…. The voice isn’t distinct…. The dialogue doesn’t sound natural.” It was created as the grand finale for The Editor’s Writing Young Adult Fiction For Dummies Blog Tour but you can still view the full webinar (free) on Youtube.

re: Making an Interruption FEEL Like an Interruption

in Dialogue/Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

My critique group has a debate going on about how to punctuate dialogue when the speaker is interrupted versus when they let their words trail off. Can you clarify the correct punctuation?

Sue

Dear Sue…

Last week’s presidential debate, tomorrow’s vice presidential debate, next week’s second presidential debate, your writing group’s punctuation debate . . . ‘tis the season for hashing out the big issues, isn’t it? And for writers, creating the perfect rhythm for your fictional conversations is a big issue. If you want a character’s words to trail off, use ellipses as I did above when I let my list of debates trail off. But for an interruption, the almighty em-dash can’t be beat. Think of that long line as a chop at the throat, a hand slicing through the air in a forceful cease-and-desist motion: “But I want—” “Enough. It’s not up for debate.” Did you feel that verbal karate chop? That’s a satisfying interruption.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Should Split Personalities Get Italicized Dialogue?

in Dialogue by

Dear Editor…

I’m currently working on a book and in it I have a character with a split personality. Throughout the book I have the two talking to each other frequently, and both are distinguished by their names. My question is, if A (the split personality) is talking to B (the physical person) do I italicize it? Quote it?

Any help would be appreciated!
Damian

Dear Damian…

I can think of just one reason to set A’s dialogue in roman type surrounded by quotation marks: if B were supposed to be uttering A’s lines out loud, physically executing both parts of the conversation. But in that case, when another character comes on-scene you’d have to switch to italics to move A’s dialogue into B’s head or else the visiting character would witness B’s two-way chatter. That sounds messy, and thus distracting for readers. Make it easy for everyone by italicizing all of A’s dialogue just as you would internal dialogue—even when B is uttering A’s lines out loud. I recently edited a manuscript featuring a character with three personalities, and I found that after reading just a few lines of the split personalities’ italicized dialogue, I stopped noticing the italics altogether and just sank into the fictional conversation.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Tips for Writing Romantic Scenes that Aren’t Cliche?

in Dialogue/Romance Novels/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

The romantic parts in my YA novel are hard to write. They sound corny and feel cliche. Help?!

Elle S.

 

Dear Elle…

It’s tough to write the kissie stuff in a fresh way. And with the intense close-up on bodies and words, the burden of conveying the emotion can fall on the dialogue, making it sound hammy. Step back and look around your characters. The props in your setting can freshen up the scene with subtext. Subtext refers to what’s going on behind the spoken words and the obvious action. Subtext adds depth to a scene, undermining, contradicting, or reinforcing what’s being said. Imagine a scene where the couple makes out on a couch that the boy’s mean mom loves, making the girl struggle to push away images of his mom. This is great subtext for young lovers sneaking around behind parents’ backs. Or move them to his bed where a pillow sewed by his ex-girlfriend rests. You can almost write that scene around the pillow and all its significance. Settings and props particular to your couple’s history avoid cliché, and subtext liberates your dialogue.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Use Modern Dialogue for Historical Fiction?

in Dialogue/General fiction by

Dear Editor…

In writing an historical fiction novel about an immigrant boy in 1911, how would you handle dialogue—should it be true to the time or more modern for today’s readers?

Roz

Dear Roz…

You’re writing dialogue, not a dictionary. Most people prefer accessibility to precise adherence to “the way people really spoke back then.” Alice Hoffman’s popular, highly acclaimed The Dovekeepers is set in Ancient Israel, 70 C.E. No one’s putting up a stink because her dialogue uses modern contractions: “It’s good you don’t want it.” Use time-specific phrases, yes, but even better: inject accessible dialogue with authentic flavor by recreating the way people of 1911 strung their words together—the syntax. Read as many first-hand writings of the time as possible. Train your brain to mimic the cadence and flavor of the syntax and work that rhythm into accessible character confabs.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Forcing Readers to Read It Your Way

in Dialogue/Narrative Voice/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

To me the use of ellipses, em dashes, and the use of italics to emphasis specific words are very much a part of both the author’s voice but more importantly the character’s voice. Some critiquers have said nothing about the amount of each of these included in my story, while others have had a fit. I want to say, “Have you talked with any teenagers recently, especially teen girls?” My female main character’s POV includes many more these style type things than does the male character’s POV. It’s part of what’s different about their voice.

Would LOVE your take on this,
Beth

Dear Beth…

You’re trying to write the teen accent, girl, and written accents almost always distract. The writing becomes about using typographical trickery to force the printed words to make certain sounds in readers’ minds, and the reading experience becomes a conscious effort to read the accent rather than focus on the content. Distraction city. Readers should sink into your story, not recite it. Don’t get me wrong, total thumbs up for trying to create an authentic teen voice. But don’t confuse “authentic” with mimicry. Real-life talking is a mess of meandering, stuttery gobbledygook. Writers approximate real-life talking styles to keep their fiction accessible even as they create voice. A book full of forced accent like “Oh my gawd! I was so, like, mortified—what with being a girl and all…”, can overwhelm readers, especially kids. Stop forcing it. Instead, use action between the lines of dialogue to create emphasis, and use repetition and hyperbole: “I full-on dive into the car and then ball up on the floorboard with my jacket over my head. Kill me now. Just kill me now and get it over with. Life at Derkson High is a living nightmare.” Less distracting, more dynamic, totally teen.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Is Your Internal Dialogue Telling You Something?

in Dialogue/Narrative Voice/Point of View/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a young adult novel in first person that alternates between the 2 main characters’ POV. I’m getting conflicting advice from critiquers about the use of internal dialogue—those not very into YA fiction say I have too much; those accustomed to YA fiction don’t comment on the internal thoughts OR say I need more! Is it a genre thing?

Sincerely,
Beth

Dear Beth…

More intriguing to me than the category split is the fact that all your critiquers commented on the internal dialogue. Something’s off. I.D. is essentially dialogue that reaches the tip of a character’s tongue but gets bitten back (Not in this lifetime, loser); it should spill out as naturally as a verbal comment. Natural and judicious use of I.D. is not so conspicuous. I suspect your characters’ talking voices have more personality than their narrative voices and that’s why you’re writing lots of it—distracting some readers with its overuse while wowing others with its zing. Put that zing in the narrative voice! Try it. Rewrite a scene as if the character is next to you, talking about that day. Not describing it, but talking about it the way he’d talk to himself. Different? I bet.

Happy writing!
The Editor

re: Lie, Lay, and Other Grammar Issues in Dialogue

in Dialogue/Formatting/Punctuation/Grammar by

Dear Editor…

I (now) know the difference between lie and lay, but I was wondering if this grammar rule had to be followed in dialogue? I would like my character to talk about “laying out” and tanning but trying to say it grammatically correct seems too stilted and wrong. What’s the verdict?

Sincerely,

Rachel

Dear Rachel…

You know those two pairs of hash marks that surround the dialogue in your manuscript? Some people call them double quotation marks. I call them shields. Why? Because they deflect the rules of grammar as surely as shields deflect photon torpedoes away from the Starship Enterprise. When characters speak in a piece of fiction, the only real rules are clarity and believability. If your character would mix up lay and lie when she speaks in her fictional world, you are right to record her grammar gaffe in your manuscript. It’ll be most believable to readers if she’s frequently casual with her grammar, but that’s not required. Plenty of people in real life get lie and lay mixed up.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: How Much Talk Is Too Much in YA Fiction?

in Dialogue/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

How much dialogue is too much dialogue in a young adult novel?

Sincerely,

Katie

Dear Katie…

I’m on Day 7 of intense dialogue immersion as I draft that chapter of Writing Young Adult Fiction for Dummies, so your question finds me in the right frame of mind—albeit barely. The gray matter is nearly wrung dry on this topic. Let’s see what I can squeeze out.

There’s no official “too much” threshold for dialogue in YA fiction. You’ve got to find the right balance of dialogue and narrative for your style and your target age group. The bestselling The Book Thief (ages 12 and up) is almost 600 pages, with probably 2/3 of each page being narrative rather than dialogue. This might intimidate younger readers, who tend to feel comfortable seeing white space and dialogue on their pages. But then, The Book Thief’s got a lot of white space thanks to frequent paragraphing, and its conversational narration makes even the narrative bits feel like dialogue, establishing a satisfying balance. The reverse, a book that’s 2/3 dialogue on each page, can feel balanced if the narrative that does appear avoids wasting time on innocuous actions (brushing hair aside, turning to face other characters) and instead offers dynamic and revealing actions that challenge readers—perhaps deliberately contradicting the spoken words, or hinting at feelings that the speaking character wants to hide. The narrative could add a subtext, extra plot info, and additional tension to the story. My worry is that setting might be overlooked when the narrative is spare. Setting can be worked into the action (a character interacting with a prop in a revealing manner) or directly addressed in the narrative (a brief sensual description of the place) to illuminate or enhance your character in ways that dialogue alone cannot do.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Should She Leave the “g” in Regional Dialect?

in Dialogue/Narrative Voice by

Dear Editor…

What is your opinion on the use of dialect? In my MG novel, I rely on it a lot. The dropping of the “g” in knowing, for instance. I need to show how these two girls talk.
Right?

Sincerely,

Robyn

Dear Robyn…

Dialect is ‘bout more’n playin’ with your spellin’. ‘sides, droppin’ the “g” is really jes writin’ an accent, and most o’ the time, writin’ accents is plain distractin’.

Okay, I gotta stop that, it hurts. But by exaggerating I hope to demonstrate how distracting spelling manipulation can be. And really, a dropped “g” isn’t distinctive. People all over America drop their g’s in casual conversation. It’s more important that you capture the unique turns of phrase and rhythms of the region. For example, “Go on, now” and “do tell” and “I lit out after her” send you to the South. Combine such distinct phrases with narrative clues like crab apple trees in the yard and nearby bayous and the like, and you’ll create a world—and that’s what storytelling is about. Consider this: “It’s all about Mama and her being a teacher and all.” You could write that as, “It’s all ‘bout Mama and her bein’ a teacher and all,” but why? Page after page of apostrophes can be as obnoxious as my opening lines above. Version 1 of the Mama line suggests a folksy region, and surrounding it with similarly styled dialogue and narrative details that suggest a specific place yields one smooth flavor that’s far more satisfying than tweaking the spelling in dialogue.

For an example of dialect that mines grammar and vocabulary rather than accent, read the middle grade novel Love, Ruby Lavender by National Book Award Finalist Deborah Wiles. That book oozes Mississippi without a single altered spelling. And good garden of peas, it’s just a good’un!

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Dare I Swear in a Teen Novel?

in Dialogue/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

I’m writing a YA novel and the question of four-letter words has come up. Usually, I avoid them. But I’ve got a scene where two kids argue at school, and it seems natural to have one tell the other to f___ off. “Get lost” just doesn’t cut it. Do you have any suggestions? What is the best policy to follow?

Sincerely,

Shelia

Dear Sheila…

If you’re considering the f-word, you must also consider a g-word: “gatekeeper.” Before YAs land in teens’ hands, they usually pass through parents, teachers, or librarians. These are the gatekeepers for young readers, and generally speaking, cussing clogs their filters. Sure, we all know teens cuss, and yes, it would be ‘real’ to write that into dialogue, but how many parents want to put the f-bomb right in their kids’ hands?

You can make a case for foul language in YA when it’s organic to the character or situation, such as warring gangstas in a dicey ‘hood. Gatekeepers might accept bad words there because they’re already letting the kids read an edgy story. But even in rough stories you can avoid four-letter words or unsatisfying substitutions by simply recasting to avoid the need to swear. Let your characters fling cutting insults or act out physically in a confrontation—throwing things, shoving, flipping the bird, etc. You can avoid “f— you”, so do. If your book doesn’t need cussing to exist, don’t endanger its existence by cussing.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: Are Sentence Fragments Worth Fisticuffs?

in Dialogue by

Dear Editor…

An argument is ensuing in my writing group about “realistic” dialog. On one side are the believers in using clipped dialog as they believe that is the way people speak—all the time. I say sometimes people speak in full sentences, so I use both. What’s the right balance? Assuming two native speakers.

Sincerely,

Bill

Dear Bill…

Here’s hoping I can save you folks from coming to blows in this war over words. Or rather, over dialogue.

Realistic dialogue uses a combination of sentence fragments and full sentences—as does real speech. Relying on one technique too heavily makes dialogue sound manufactured. Go too heavy on the sentence fragments and the dialogue will sound choppy, distracting your readers’ attention away from your content to your craft, something you never want to do. Go too heavy on full sentences and your characters will sound long-winded or (gads!) stiff. In either case, if you’re using a technique often enough to spark argument, odds are you’re overusing it. Might your group be reacting so strongly because those complete sentences of yours sound too formal? Be sure to fill them with shifty syntax, to use casual grammar and self-interruptions, and, sometimes, to let them be run-ons. Above all, let your hair down! Full sentences needn’t be death sentences your cohorts fear.

Happy writing!

The Editor

re: The Perils of Swapping Slang

in Dialogue/Teen/Middle Grade Fiction by

Dear Editor…

Often it seems that dialogue can get choppy and sound too contrived.  How do you establish a more natural conversation, especially when writing with a teen voice and vocabulary?

Sincerely,

Anna

Dear Anna…

First and foremost and absolutely most important: “Natural” teen conversation is not about swapping slang. That is, by far, the most common pitfall of newcomers to teen fiction. Consider this exchange of slang: “Dude, that flick was sick.” “I’m sayin’, bro! Way killer.” These are the words of youth, yes, but they sound terrible in written dialogue. Slang will date a book (“groovy”, anyone?), but even worse, it almost always sounds contrived when usurped by adults. Not to mention painful. (Translation for fellow thirty-something-plusers: “sick” is “cool,” not vomitous or snotty.)

Natural teen dialogue isn’t about slang. Rather, it’s about another “s” word: syntax. You want to string your words together in a more footloose fashion, and throw in a little bad grammar while you’re at it. Nothing sounds more contrived in a teen’s mouth than meticulous, proper sentence structure. A teen would not say, “You need to stop doing that” or “Stop running in the hall.” At best, those lines are dull. There’s certainly no youthfulness in them. Instead, a teen would say, “Don’t be doing that” or “Quit with all the running.” You may need to toss a blanket over your signed copy of Elements of Style before attempting this kind of anarchy, but it really will make for more natural teen dialogue.

Another pertinent characteristic of teens is that they are all emotion and reaction, with fewer self-censoring mechanisms than adults. They talk first and think (about both what they say and how they say it) second. Next time you write two teens conversing, let them react and blurt. That way, you’ll have less opportunity to stick a bunch of narrative in between the lines of dialogue describing what the speaker is doing, where he is doing it, and how he is doing it, which chops up even the best dialogue. Sure, you need your narrative pauses in conversation, but be willing to let the dialogue build on itself with a few good back-and-forths before you give readers their narrative breather. It’s a balancing act, I know, but one well worth perfecting. Because when you get this down, the conversations between your teen characters will be more natural—and way sicker.

Happy writing!

The Editor

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