Hard Lessons | The Writing Site of R K Athey

Ya Ain’t Talkin’ Right

dialogueMy copy editor from Flourish Editing returned my latest story. There’s a few persistent flaws that need work, one of which is dialogue. This post and others like it become a check list for the revised draft phase. Yes, I use my blog as a personal notebook.

  • Use ‘said’, ‘asked’, etc. sparingly. Other methods let the reader know who’s  speaking. Only a fifth of meaning comes from words in the dialogue. The rest come from actions, gestures, and tone.
  • Never use ‘replied’. It’s obvious they’re replying.
  • Use dialogue to do more than document what a character says. A clever choice of words is an opportunity to show how the character feels about themselves and others.
  • Always spell out numbers in dialog unless they are ridiculously long.
  • Use a hyphen ‘-‘ to show interrupted speech not an ellipse ‘. . .’

Lessons I’ve learned and applied to the latest story from previous experience:

  • Don’t spew. Long, stilted dialogue makes for hard reading.
  • Similarly, avoid talking heads whose only purpose is information dumps. Bob, from the Dresden Files, is a clever shot at Jim Butcher’s writing mentor. She told him to avoid talking heads so he put a knowledgeable skull in the story.
  • Everyday speech patterns work much batter than formal statements. If you have a large vocabulary, resist the urge to exercise it. Write dialogue as short sentences that go back and forth. Remember the stimulus response pattern from scenes.
  • Listen to conversations around your and try to mimic them but only use lines relevant to the story. Hitchcock said “Drama is just life with the dull parts taken out.” Your dialogue is the same. Remove parts that don’t support the story.
  • Ignore proper sentence structure and grammar unless that’s an important characteristic of the speaking character. Proper grammatical usage goes out the window during day-to-day conversation.
  • Characters should have different voices. I pick an actor from a film for each character and imagine the words coming out of their mouth. It helps.

I’m sure more bullet points are on the way. I expect the finalized set of edits some time this weekend.

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