I recently read a book I was doing for review. With review copy, I pay closer attention and tend to analyze more. As I delved deeper and deeper into the pages, something started to nag at me, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. The writing was fairly tight, the story was decent and the characters were fully developed. And yet, something kept sticking in my craw.
Finally, while reading a passage that was particularly heavy on dialog, it hit me. In a recent workshop I attended on “VOICE” with Greenwillow Editor, Martha Mihalick, she used a word that stuck with me. That word was “authentic”. I realized that many areas of dialog in the book did not seem authentic. The words shared between the characters did not flow naturally. Although this author is obviously a talented writer and storyteller, this unrealistic interaction took away from the authenticity of her work.
For me, dialog is often harder to write than descriptive narrative or action scenes. I find myself stopping more often to reread what I’ve written and catch myself speaking the words out loud in a way I imagine the characters would say them. I want my dialog to sound natural, and yet, still manage to pull my story forward. This is no easy task. Here are some of the snags I think we writers find ourselves up against when writing dialog.
Use of –ly adverbs in tag lines.
Example: “His dog is dying,” John said grimly.
By using the word “grimly” the writer is giving emotion to the speaker that would be better off shown in the dialog. Remember the number one rule in writing; show, don’t tell! If the author has written the passage successfully, then the grimness of the situation would hold its own. The proper tag for most dialogs is simply “said”. The point of a tag is to let the reader identify who is speaking. By sprinkling in all sorts of creative adverbs, the reader must pause to focus on them, whereas the word "said" is often skipped past, making a smoother transition.
Using impossible tags.
Example: “Oh, no!” Sandra Cried. “He’s getting away.”
Since it is virtually impossible to “cry” a word, this tag line makes no sense. And yet, it is one that is commonly used. Stop and think about your tag. Words like frown, smile, growl, or sneer cannot be done during the act of speech. Keep it simple.
Beginning dialog with the tag line.
Example: Sara asked, “Where have you been?”
There is more excitement and impact shown by switching it around to read: “Where have you been?” Sara asked.
Example: “Hi, Charlene,” Adam said. “How are you?”
“Hi, Adam,” Charlene answered. “I’m fine. How are you?
“I’m great, Charlene, thanks for asking.”
“Glad to hear it, Adam. See you later.”
In a real conversation, Adam and Charlene wouldn’t repeat each other’s names after making initial contact. Sometimes writers intersperse names into conversations as an attempt to clarify who is speaking. This is not necessary if the dialog is written properly.
As a final note, I want to point out where dialog can be a great problem solver. Remember that rule I mentioned earlier? Show, don’t tell. Dialog can be a wonderful tool in avoiding that issue. Instead of telling the reader your character is angry, use dialog to show it.
Example: (Telling) Norman was angry when Marcus dropped the anvil
on his toe.
(Showing) “Darn it, Marcus!” Norman yelled, “You dropped that anvil
on my toe!”
So as you write that New York Times Bestseller, keep these little glitches in mind and do your best to avoid them. Read your dialog out loud to yourself or someone else. The words are often different to the ear than they appear on paper. Listening is the key to authenticity. Keep it real.