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Do You Talk?

You may remember that in last Thursday’s post, our stupendous Suzanne gave you the quick and dirty guide to using correct mechanics with dialog. Look here for a brush-up. So, what more is there? He said, she said, quotation marks, single line per speaker, yadda yadda yadda… Ah, my friends. There is so much more to writing believable dialog. How do I know this? Because I hear voices. I’m not joking. I hear people speaking in my daydreams and brainstorms. I hear rhythm and cadence, colloquialisms and regional accents. And sometimes I even try on their voices out loud.

Hear the voices

Hear them as a reader. Hear them as a writer. Hear them as an editor. But hear them. Make a fool of yourself by testing you dialog aloud. Does it feel strange to have a twelve-year-old kid say, “Ironically, my grandfather bequeathed me this nineteenth-century spittoon.”

Yes, yes it does. I’m betting that kid would say, “My grandpa left me this old spittoon thing when he died.”

It’s all about character

Characters, both fictional and non-fictional, use language in unique and personal ways. Given a phrase and seventeen characters saying it, you’ll have seventeen different sentences fleshing out seventeen individuals.

I trained as an actor in college. Yes, I was a theatre major.

One of my favorite exercises was the “I love you” exercise. Basically, you went around the room, one at a time, saying the phrase “I love you” with a different intention. Some came out sweetly. Some were questions. Some were accusations. All with the same phrase.

Adapting that exercise as a writer, you can have one intent and a myriad of different ways to say it. For example, the intention is “I love you.” Here are a few ways your characters can say this and you can use the intention to further character development and plot and not be plain old, “I love you.”

  • Aunt Hilda pinched my cheek and clucked, “Aren’t you the bee’s knees!”
  • Roger watched her turn and walk away, his heart trying to follow her. “Katie!” he called. “Don’t forget your umbrella!”
  • Emily folded herself around her frail mother, pulling her close and whispering, “Oh, mom…”
  • My arm reached out and tugged on her braid, when she turned around, all I could say was, “It, umm.. I… Uh… sorry.”
  • Corinne swiped her arm across her wrecked face, streaking her makeup from one temple to the other. “I could have carried you to the moon and back, you selfish fucking bastard!”

Talking verbs

My kids have started writing. I know! Squee!

They’re nine and almost seven. And my nine-year-old son is pretty much only writing Minecraft tutorials. But the almost-seven-year-old daughter is writing stories. With narrative and dialog. Right now, all of her characters say things. He said, she said, Rosie said, I said. I think she only writes matter-of-fact characters because all they do is say things.

The first step away from having characters just say things is to have them say something with an adverb.

  • She said tersely, “Bah!”
  • He said quickly, “Wha?”
  • “Uh-huh,” Ellen said ponderously.

There is nothing wrong with saying things adverb-ly. But, is does this pack the most punch? Does it stick the image? Why not try these:

  • “Bah!” The word plunked out of her mouth like a token shoved into a subway turnstile.
  • Caught in the act, Gerald jumped, stammering, “Wha?”
  • “Uh-huh,” Ellen sang slowly, her voice sounding like it was coming from another galaxy.

Bam! Instantly your dialog carries the action and character development forward. And I didn’t even use real words in those examples! So, if you’re really stuck and can’t find another way to say “said,” consult a thesaurus. You know, that book of lots of words? Don’t run down the list and use them in order, but remember that people utter and shout and gasp and whisper and pray and scream and screech and chant and, well, if you don’t quite get it, Mr. Roget can help.

Make a fool of yourself

I’m serious. Talk in goofy accents. Try on catch phrases. Close your eyes in a public place and listen to the way people talk. They don’t always use complete sentences. They don’t always have subject/verb agreement. In fact, spoken language is the one place you can legitimately throw usage rules out the window. Real people say “ain’t” and “them people” and “her and I went” and “liberry” and “nu-cu-lar” and other things that drive strict grammarians up the wall. Use this. Repeat words. No one refers to a couch as a couch, davenport, settee, loveseat or whatever in real life. They are couch potatoes sitting on the couch. Heck, sometimes people repeat the same word over and over just because they like to say it.

  • “Holy crap! Didja see how far that ball went? Holy crap! I can’t believe he hit it outta the park!”
  • “Oh, goodness! Goodness me, you must be chilled to the bone!”
  • “No, I didn’t – I just – I didn’t. I just didn’t take that necklace. I just didn’t!”

And, yes, I said every one of those sentences aloud as I wrote them. It’s a good workout for those voices I’m always hearing because they like to come out and play, too. Remember, if you can’t hear it in your head, your reader can’t hear it in theirs.


 The summer supergrid is open for popular voting!

The summer supergrid crowd favorite and top row winners will be determined by popular vote. Be cautioned: yeah write isn’t an Internet clicking contest, and the votes are moderated for fairness. Read each post before voting.

Everybody gets three votes

We use scaled voting each week for the challenge grid. This week, we each get three votes because there are between 21 and 30 entries. Click on the thumbnails to read each post before voting. Click on the nifty heart-shaped voting icon to vote for the post after reading. Do not vote for your own post, please. We’ll delete your vote if you do. We’re not kidding. Trust us, it’ll be OK if you vote for other people. Need some tips on voting? Read this post.

Voting is open until Friday, 6:00 p.m. EDT & Winners announced in Sunday’s kickoff post

Once the voting ends, the challenge grid will sort itself from highest number of votes to the fewest. Ties are broken by number of page views. Until the winners’ post is published, none of the sorting will be official, but you can still get a good idea of where everyone ended up until the votes are validated.


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