Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Let's Talk About Words, baby!

Betsy here, with another handy-dandy writing craft tip. (oops, can you tell I've been watching Blues Clues with a certain 3 year old blonde?)

Let's talk about talk.


Dumm dum dummmm.

Do you dread it in your story, or look forward to witty banter between your characters? Some find dialogue natural and fun to do, others find it incredibly tricky.

I think that's because there's a fine line between making your dialogue real (realistic) but not to the point of displaying every cough, grunt, throat clearing and use of fluff words that happen in real life but in fiction, drag down our work.

Fluff words include "Thanks" and "You're welcome" and "Good morning" and "Hi" and "Okay talk to you later, bye" and etc. Things people politely say every day in real life when checking out at the grocery store or hanging up the phone. But in our stories, we need to write tight. Make every line count, whether that be via internal thought, narrative or dialogue. Think subtext when you write dialogue - make your characters imply more than what they're saying. Do double duty!

Also, watch your length of dialogue. Break it up with action beats and internal thoughts from the Point of View character and their noticing reactions from the other person they're conversing with. When you're talking to someone in real life, you notice how they're responding to you. You notice if they take a sip of coffee or bite their lip like they're disagreeing with you or cross their arms like they're defensive or looking off like they're distracted. Play that up in your writing, but make sure it MEANS something and isn't just for the mere sake of doing it.

Think white space. You don't want your characters drowning in a monologue or rambling on and on and not giving the other character a word in. (that unfortunately happens in real life but in our stories we need balance ::wink::) The reader will get tired of all that dialogue without a white space break and will probably shut the book or skip the scene.

At the same time, make the character's dialogue purposeful. Use it to provide information and move the story forward, and show who they are as a character. Don't just have your characters chit-chat about the weather if the weather isn't about to play a part in the story. MAKE IT COUNT :)

Here's a scene of dialogue from my novel, ADDISON BLAKELY, CONFESSIONS OF A PK. I used this example in a "What Not To Do" craft article I wrote for the January/February issue of the Southern Writers Magazine (  I used this to example the importance of tags vs. action beats in writing. But its an example of dialogue as well.

Check it out -

Nothing makes writing appear more amateur than an author who uses too many tags and not enough action beats in their story. A tag is “she said” or “he exclaimed” or “she yelled” or “he mused.” Typically, the only tags that should ever be used is the somewhat invisible “said” and even then, sparingly—because action beats not only serve the purpose of clarifying who is speaking, but flesh out the scene and provide the reader with visual detail. See how the below examples compare.

Example 1: Tags
“What’d you do, throw a rock from twenty yards?” I asked.

“I’ve got a good arm,” Wes said.

“Then why are you slumming around Crooked Hollow instead of playing for the pros?” I asked.

“Professional sports teams tend to frown on jail records,” he laughed.

“What? You’ve never—”

“Never what?” he questioned.

“Nev-never mind,” I said.

Example 2: Action beats

“What’d you do, throw a rock from twenty yards?” I snorted like I wasn’t flattered he’d nearly busted the window with a pebble. It shouldn’t matter what he did for me. But it did.

He shrugged. “I’ve got a good arm.”

“Then why are you slumming around Crooked Hollow instead of playing for the pros?”

“Professional sports teams tend to frown on jail records.” He winked.

“What? You’ve never—” The words froze on my tongue, and I swallowed them, cold and hard. The things I truly knew about Wes could be counted on maybe one and a half hands—and that was if he was telling the truth about the number of his tattoos. I sort of figured he was lying about that one.

He took a step toward me, his jacket opening slightly at the neck and revealing a hunter green pullover. “Never what?”

“Nev-never mind.”

Any questions? :)


  1. Good post. I know this isn't related, but I have a question. I have this character that I made up, and she is absolutely my favorite character EVER! The problem is that I don't know what to do with her. I'll start to write a story with her in it, then I'll stop and think, "Nope... Not good enough." Has this ever happened to you? What do you do about it? If I thought I could pull a Nancy Drew and have 50-something stories with this character, I probably would... :/

  2. Hey Ashley! :)

    It sounds like you love your character but you don't KNOW her. You need to interview her! Make a list of questions and then sit down and figure out how she answers them. Questions like : What is your deepest fear? What was your most embarrassing moment? What do you hope to accomplish in ten years? What is your darkest secret? What do you do when you have free time? What is your favorite color? What is your favorite style music?

    Once you start asking and answering the questions from her point of view, you'll see where her story is going :)

    You can probably even google "Fiction character profiles" and find a list of questions other authors have compiled for the same reasons!!

    And hey nothing is saying you can't make her into a long going series!!