Monday, December 15, 2008


Late last summer I wrote a post on Dialogue. I had just started my blog earlier that month, so when I asked the question: HOW DO YOU WRITE DIALOGUE? I received a handful of wonderful comments.

This is how I answered the question:
When writing dialogue, be the character. Don't edit as you write dialogue (plenty of time for that later), rather meditate yourself into the character's soul and let him/her talk. Don't judge what he/she is saying or if it 'fits the character, rather let your character ramble until you nail their way of talking, reacting, thinking. Your characters will write the dialogue for you. A couple days later you can edit, refine, make sure it fits what and who your characters are. Three or four revisions later, your dialogue will be as natural as if your characters were sitting next to you.
And this is how GOOD ENOUGH author Paula Yoo  answered: 
One thought on dialogue from my screenwriting experience that I use in novels - have the characters talk about anything other than what they REALLY want to talk about. That can lead to some great moments of subtext versus text - two sisters can be arguing over who does the dishes more and how it's not fair, and then in the fight, one of them drops the dish and it breaks... of course this conversation happens after dinner when their parents announce they're getting a divorce. That's just an obvious example, but that's something I hope to get people over their fear of dialogue - dialogue can be FUN! 
 THE NEW GIRL....AND ME author Jacqui Robbins wrote: 
I "get into character" like i did in my theater days. I put on character-appropriate music, find an appropriate place/chair, etc. Then I dive in. Sometimes I even speak aloud while I write (they love me at the library...).
In late October, fantasy and romance novelist C.E. Murphy taught a class on Dialog at the South Carolina Writers Workshop and shared her notes on Magical Words. Muphy's notes are a must read for all writers!

Today with a much larger readership, I ask once again... 



  1. Before beginning each chapter of a novel, I outline it by having the characters banter in dialog. No 'he said' or 'she said'; no descriptions, expositions, explanations, transitions. I just type their conversations as fast as I can, letting their personalities dictate what they say and how they say it. Then I go back and revise, making sure that each line of dialog has a reason to be there. Meaning, it either moves the story forward or reveals something about the character speaking that is crucial to the plot.

  2. I like Paula's reminder that characters often speak AROUND what they're actually talking about - sometimes it's important to avoid being too "on the nose" with what they're saying...
    Also, I liked reading Catie's "Magical Words" post - thanks for linking to it!
    Off to work on some of my own dialog,

  3. Awesome!

    I write and read it out loud in my character's voice. Over and over and over until it sounds perfectly normal.

  4. Some dialog lines pop up in my mind spontaneously. Some lines, I plan, engineer, practically calculate, i.e., as the author, I decide what needs to be stated or revealed here and there. In either case, I revise by becoming the character (lying on my back on the den carpet with my eyes closed) and rewriting according to the way the character would speak. Later I highlight each character's line in a different color to check consistency. I also check each character's lines (and behavior) from beginning to end by asking myself whether the reader will be able to tell how that character feels (angry and shouting? scared and stuttering?)--if I want the reader to be able to tell, which is not always the case.

  5. Great discussion, Jill! I have two comments. First, I'm a little confused on what Lee (Wardlaw) meant by "outlining a chapter" by having dialog banter bet/ characters. To me, outlining is a thoughtful, planned activity, but dialog banter is spontaneous. Lee, do you mean that you first do the dialog banter then use that to outline the chapter and give you direction?

    Second comment is that when I write dialog, I do the same kind of thing as Caroline. I close my eyes, get into the character's head, really putting myself in her state of mind, then I let my fingers fly. I've also found that my best dialog writing comes in the wee hours of the morning, when it's still dark out, the world is still asleep, and there are not external interruptions to the "conversations" taking place in my head.

    Thanks for starting up this discussion, Jill!

  6. I agree completely! Too many books lack dialogue. How many people go through life without having conversations? I love to put dialogue in my books. The book that I just had published has dialogue, and I love to use the trick mentioned by Colorado Writer, read the dialogue out loud until it sounds real.

    Tony Peters
    Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

  7. I still do that (am at the coffee shop right now; the other patrons fear me, I think). Lately, I've also been asking other people to read the dialogue aloud to me, so I can hear how it reads and not just how it sounds in my head.

  8. Great discussion. I always feel like I have trouble with dialogue, until that magical moment when suddenly I am the character and the words just pop out (usually out of my mouth, too, which would be sort of weird if I wasn't alone in the dining room with my laptop and tea!).

  9. Yep. All of the above. I talk it out loud. I try to remember the pauses, the trailing ends of conversations, the interrupting, the missed connections, assumptions, arguments,and confusion that happens in speech.

  10. Great ideas! Thank you all for sharing....and keep 'em coming.

    OK, so here is where I get tripped up.....being the middle-aged woman I am, I often have trouble sounding like an authentic 8 year old boy or a 13 year old girl or even a 26 year old middle school teacher.
    How do you authenticate your kid/mg/ya voice?

  11. I'm interested to see what people have to say. I'm in the middle of revising dialogue, so I'm up for all the advice I can get!


  12. I think if we truly inhabit our characters we will have an authentic voice for each character.

    If we are struggling with finding an authentic voice there are two things I can think of to do.
    1. Spend time around kids the age of our characters.
    2. Spend more time developing the character, so we can truly know the character. If we see the world through the character's eyes and inhabit the character the voice will be "right".

  13. When I'm stuck, I often use Charlie Baxter's trick of "crowding my characters." Put 'em in a room and don't let them out until they have had it out.

    For the younger voice, I run monologue exercises... Write a monologue where my character is trying to justify something he's done wrong to his mother while they are in the kitchen, then to his best friend while they are hiking, and then to his sibling while in bunk beds. It helps me explore the way my character's talk to different people.

  14. Greatt advice :)

  15. Jill, your blog is fantastic! Filled with great information on writing. I especially liked Michael Stearns "Basics" on Dialogue. And, I don't mean to plug LA Writer's Day, but Michael is one of our presenters this year. Yipee!

    Happy New Year! May it be filled with (even more) literary success.


  16. Remember that each character needs to have a distinct voice so you can recognize them ... just like you recognize people on the phone. Sometimes dialogue among secondary characters can begin to sound alike. By the same token, it needs to be natural and not overdone.

  17. Because I'm an Artist, I get to know my characters by drawing them first. I let my mind become still, look at my paper and let the image take shape in my mind. Then when all the details are clear, I start drawing and listen to the immerging voice tell me all about who they are. It's very exciting for me to watch and hear a personality be born!

  18. Now is it "dialogue" or "dialog?" Because I always write "dialogue" but I don't want to be accidentally spelling something in the British style like "colour" or "favourite" or whatever cause that would just be embarrassing.

    Also, great advice from you and Paula. I won't add anything else because I can't think of something clever, and your advice would top it anyway.

    Neat blog, by the way.

    Ben Esch

  19. Ben,
    I almost had a heart attack when I saw your comment. I am the worst speller and thought, holly cow, now everyone know it. I raced to find my giant 15lb. dictionary and here is what I found:

    dialog and dialogue are interchangeable.
    Dialog - Middle English
    Dialogue - Old French
    from the Latin - dialogus and
    from the Greek - dialogos

    And that concludes our linguistics lesson for today.

    BTW, I always write colour; it looks pretty to me:)

  20. Jill,

    Since you're awesome, I'm gonna try to work "dialog" in there a bit.

    Thanks for the lesson and great blog.


  21. Thanks Ben.
    Now I just realized I have a grammatical error in my prior post. Help, I need an editor!

  22. Wow, I'm reading over all of your comments and I am amazed by all of the wonderful exercises, tips and ideas.

    Robin, I envy your ability to draw your character and use that as a basis for your characters. My friend, author and artist Julie Williams teaches artists and non-artists alike to create mixed media collages of our characters to learn more about them, their history, their personality, their physical characteristics. Julie JUST started blogging and I am sure we will all learn a lot from it in the coming months and years. Here is a link:

  23. When I write dialog, I always speak each character's lines out loud. If anyone's near my office they could rightfully assume that I've finally lost it. (not that they mightn't assume that anyway.) Different voices, different rhythms, different speech patterns for each character. And when I edit, I remind myself that my job is to create the ILLUSION of authentic dialog, since so much of real everyday speech is peppered with "uhms" and "ahs" and "you knows."



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