July 11, 2012

Is Your Dialogue More Sigh than Sizzle?

Think about your favorite books. Now think about why you love them? Without fail, it’s because:

Does your dialogue work?

  • The plot was good-to-great. It kept you involved. It wasn’t mundane, ordinary or like other books you’ve read
  • You fell in love with the characters. You got into their heads, you heard their inner thoughts, you found out they were good and decent people even when bad stuff happened to them. Very few books survive with dislikable main characters.
  • You learned from it. This doesn’t have to be factual knowledge. It might be life’s lessons, or how to think through an emotional problem, or how to handle a difficult person. Learning about survival is as important as book learning.

Doesn’t sound hard, does it? Maybe you made sure you did all three of these things in your current story: Your plot is intricate and well-delivered. Your characters are believable and effectively engage the reader. And they learned from their mistakes in a way that readers can relate to. But everyone who reads your story comes away with a sigh. It’s good–absolutely. Sure.

How do you add sizzle? There are lots of factors required for a book to be a best seller, but none more important than dialogue.

  • How characters talk gives them a unique voice. You should know each character by how s/he’s presented in the book–his/her word choice, actions as they talk, mannerisms, accents.
  • Dialogue moves the story forward while keeping you the reader intimately involved. Dialogue happens now. You don’t know what will happen next. That builds drama and excitement, makes you keep the book open as you turn the pages. Too often, in the narrative parts of a story, that intensity is missing. Readers are comfortable sitting back, relaxing outside of the real story, knowing it’s going to work out fine.

Here are some hints I’ve cherished in the years I’ve been writing. Read them over. Select those that you can own and remember them:

  • Make dialogue authentic to your character. If you wouldn’t mention the beautiful roses, don’t have your character mention them, even if you’re desperate to flesh out the scene. Figure out a different way to do it.
  • Don’t worry about grammar unless your character is a professor. How many people in real life make sure they don’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence?
  • Watch tags. ‘Said’ is fine. ‘Blustered’ and ‘lectured’ isn’t. They’re the crutch of the novice writer. I often avoid tags altogether by having the character do something before he speaks, like ‘Zeke slurped his coffee. “I just said that.”‘
  • Avoid dialogue that doesn’t advance the story and the meaningless give and take that is routine in everyday conversation. Yes, dialogue must be true to life, but don’t bore readers. Leave out the stuff about ‘she said hello, then she asked how he was, then she mentioned how hot it was.’ Get to the point or your reader will put the book down.
  • Add to the reader’s knowledge with dialogue. Don’t repeat what is already known. You can do that with a quick, ‘She told him what happened at the park’.
  • Use dialogue to show and develop relationships between people. Isn’t that what conversations do in real life?

That’s it. I’m not going to make this more complicated than it is. By the time all of the above becomes routine, you’re ready for publishing.

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade, creator of two technology training books for middle school and four ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller for her agent that should be out to publishers this summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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