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Some Thoughts on Dialogue

A few months ago, I got some feedback from an RWA contest that puzzled me. I’d sent in the first twenty pages of McShannon’s Heart, and one judge commented “It’s almost as if two different people wrote this.” I was honestly befuddled, but now, I think I understand what she meant.

When I write dialogue, I try to write it the way I think that character would actually speak, but it seems that isn’t always the best option. Dialogue has to match the writer’s descriptive style. I read the passages the judge had marked and realized that in trying to make my characters authentic as nineteenth-century rural people, I’d pared down their speech so that it was too much of a contrast with my descriptions.

I think readers also have certain expectations when it comes to dialogue, especially with historicals, but the truth is that nineteenth-century speech wasn’t all that different from the way we talk now, if novels and journals written at the time are any indication. Court records show that vulgar expressions are timeless. Letters and diaries use surprisingly modern language, but as readers, we expect the dialogue in a historical story to be different. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel right, even though it might be accurate.

Dialogue also has to take into account the fact that readers don’t have the visual cues so important in real conversation. To avoid using a lot of cumbersome ‘stage directions’ – something I have to guard against – every word has to be carefully chosen to convey the desired meaning. Dialogue tags – ‘he growled’, ‘she simpered’ – are another issue. I don’t like them and I avoid them whenever possible. The only tag I use is ‘he/she said’, when it’s necessary to clarify who’s speaking. Anyone who’s read about writing craft has read about these issues, but the craft books don’t tell us that putting the perfect, strong words in our characters’ mouths can be the difference between a good story and a published story. It’s more than a matter of avoiding tags and stage directions. Something else to strive for. I also know I’m guilty of using too much small talk in my dialogue. Greetings and goodbyes and how-are-yous can be left out because the reader’s brain fills them in.

One of the things I enjoy most about writing dialogue is the fact that I can use bad grammar with impunity. I don’t know anyone who uses perfect grammar when they speak, and if we try to we sound self-conscious and affected. The same is true in fiction.
Dialogue is a wonderful way to make characters unique. In McShannon’s Chance I had fun with the contrast between Trey’s speech patterns and Beth’s. Trey’s a lot less wordy and some of his expressions mark him as a country boy, but he doesn’t talk like a rube. After all, he’s read Walt Whitman and Dickens and R.H. Dana. Beth is an educated young woman from a good family, and her language reflects her background. In McShannon’s Heart, I really enjoyed writing conversations between Martin and Chelle. I could almost hear her Georgia drawl and his broad Yorkshire. Of course, in real life they’d hardly have been able to understand each other.

Dialogue. What do you have to say about it?


  1. Joanne Brothwell
    August 10, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Dialogue can be tricky. The first draft of my YA manuscript ended up sounding wierdly old fashioned. I had to go through it with a fine toothed comb. I think it's better now!

  2. Kevin A
    August 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    … as long as Trey doesn't step down from his horse, beat the dust from his chaps, and say "OMG Beth – you, like, wouldn't believe who I ran into at the store! It was mt BFF Dave! LOL!"

  3. Jennie Marsland
    August 10, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    You're right. I have a middle-grade WIP on the back burner, and I think it's even trickier when you're writing for young people. I teach teenagers, and I don't think I'd ever attempt YA. They speak their own language and getting it right is an art!

  4. Jennie Marsland
    August 10, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    Beth replies "Dave! OMG, he's so phat. Sick, man! Love that dude."

  5. Kelly Boyce
    August 11, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Interesting thoughts. I think the dialogue has to flow together with the writing and not pull the reader out of the story, but at the same time must also reflect the character speaking. It's a bit of a fine line to dance on, isn't it?

  6. Jennie Marsland
    August 11, 2010 at 11:50 am

    I agree, Kelly. I want readers to know which character is speaking by the way they speak, not because I've told them.

  7. Julia Smith
    August 13, 2010 at 10:49 pm

    I think contest judges can cause a lot of angst for writers when they react to a manuscript seemingly out of left field. It's their opinion, just as there will be readers who actually buy your book and who will for some reason not like your writing style after all.

    One would hope that contest judges would be more open to genres outside of their normal reading habits, but when you get comments like that, it makes me think this judge wasn't into your historical Western voice, pure and simple.