A Session with Laurel Dewey
“What’s this?” you said, upon reading the title of this article. “I write dialogue just fine, thank you. I don’t need another writer telling me how to write conversation.”
“What if I was able to help make your dialogue just a little bit more real?” I asked you. “Would that entice you to keep reading?”
You checked your schedule. “Okay,” you said. “I’ve got some spare time. Enlighten me!”
So, I have your attention. That’s good. Dialogue has the potential to grab the reader’s attention and so much more. Good dialogue drives the story forward as it paints a precise picture of each character based on the words they use, the words they never use and how they express those words. But bad dialogue can bring a great story to a cringe-worthy halt, lift the reader out of the novel and, sometimes, be the sole reason why that particular book is half-read and shelved.
In my session, “The Three-Act Principle: The Art and Arc of Charting Your Novel,” I illustrated how a writer can apply specific story techniques taken from screenwriting and use those to coherently map out one’s novel. When it comes to writing crisp, inventive, natural-sounding dialogue, I defer once again to screenwriting.
Screenwriting taught me how to write good dialogue. Let’s face it: with a screenplay, your story is told completely through dialogue with maybe two percent of minor direction between the sections of dialogue. Directors hate when any writer tells them how to direct a scene. Thus, it’s vital for the writer to move the story forward exclusively with dialogue and, intrinsic to that, believable character development.
In my earliest writing training more than thirty years ago, the power and precision of good dialogue was drummed into my head, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. Why? Because in my opinion, I’ve found dialogue to often be the worst part of a lot of novels. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because a novelist is trained to express a character’s feelings more through narrative than doing it through the character’s own words. But for me, if a writer can’t nail the dialogue as well as he/she nails the narrative, it tends to pull me out of the whole storytelling experience. I end up wincing when I really want to be drawn into how the characters would naturally express themselves.
“Dialogue fails” are unfortunately more common than not in novels, especially when children speak or during love scenes. When a child says something like, “Oh, mommy, look! That flower is so pretty. Make I please pick it?” I roll my eyes because I’ve never heard any real kid talk like that.
As for love scenes, those can be brutal to read when it comes to realistic dialogue. Ironically, a lot of romantic discourse in novels does nothing to put the reader in the mood. “Oh, dear Joe. I love you like I’ve never loved another man. You are my life and my devotion,” followed by, “Yes, Jill, I agree. If only this day were longer and I could hold you in my arms another hour.” If someone spoke to you like that during a romantic interlude, you’d start laughing – or running, because the only place people speak like that is in badly written novels.
I also find that male writers often don’t know how to write dialogue for their female characters and, conversely, female writers can be clueless when it comes to writing dialogue for male characters. A lot of times male writers end up making their female characters sound like dim light bulbs. This false tone tends to be exacerbated when it’s a coquettish scene between a man and a woman. As for female authors, they either draft their male characters to sound like primative oafs or they feminize them, turning them into men who speak like women.
The problem here goes back to whether the male or female writer has taken the time to LISTEN to how the opposite sex speaks and explains themselves, especially when those characters are interacting with the opposite sex.
THE RHYTHM OF CONVERSATION
Great dialogue has a specific rhythm. It’s like a drum beat. And great writers have perfected their dialogue cadence so that their “sound” has a recognizable tone. It’s akin to a singer who has a voice that is recognizable from the first note.
Neil Simon is a perfect example. When you listen to a Neil Simon play or film – and I say listen to a Neil Simon, not watch it – it has a verifiable “Neil Simon sound” to it that no other play has. Put those words into any capable actor’s mouth, and the “Neil Simon sound” will be maintained because Simon’s dialogue speaks for itself.
Quite simply, in order to learn how to write great dialogue, you need to listen to great dialogue that has been written by the masters who understand eloquence as well as revealing the most with the least amount of words. Once you soak up a lot of great dialogue, you’ll begin to get an ear for what works. Once your ear becomes tuned to the tempo of excellent repartee, reread a few classic novels, paying attention to the sections of dialogue. Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird come to mind. Both classics employ tight dialogue with no unnecessary flourishes or filler to slow down the story.
When I decided to write Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden, I knew the book would require a completely different type of banter than my Jane Perry novels. Betty Craven, the main character, is wound up like a clock at the beginning of the novel and maintains that uptight tenor for the first two acts of the book. Unlike Jane Perry, Betty is refined, always presentable and particularly judicious with her words. Betty would never offend anyone on purpose, but put her in a corner, and her “Texas” rears up and bites hard.
Before I start any novel, I spend months and even years developing the main character. Betty Craven was no different. Betty has been broken down emotionally, thanks to years of putting up with untenable situations and people. But Betty is also on the verge of a truly life-altering experience that will deeply challenge her core beliefs. Yet even as she morphs into that new life, it’s important for Betty to retain her impeccable manners and thoughtfulness – especially in situations that make her terribly uncomfortable.
Maintaining Betty’s charm and reliability throughout the book was paramount. Much of this is generated via the way she speaks and how she interacts with others. The humor this generates is born from realistic encounters that exploit Betty’s “fish out of water” experiences.
An example of this is a scene that takes place early in the book. The location is a high-end consignment store near Denver where Betty has brought many of her cherished antiques. One of the antiques is a “Biedermeier,” an 1825 German writing desk. Betty notices a gentleman eyeing it and even though he is not the type of person she would typically approach, she is desperate to sell her desk. Employing her “hostess with the mostest” technique, Betty devises a furtive plan, believing she can beguile the gentleman into buying the desk.
“Oh my, a Biedermeier!” she gushed in a low-key tone, brushing her palm against the wood. “You certainly don’t see these every day.”
The man looked at her with his intensely blue eyes. A soft smile followed. “Really?”
“Oh, I mean it. It’s quite a find! I don’t remember the last time I saw a Biedermeier like this.”
He leaned over and checked the price tag. “I’d say the last time you saw it was shortly before April 11th.”
Betty’s mouth went dry. “Excuse me?” She could feel that plastic smile forming on her face.
“The tag?” he noted, with a mischievous grin. “Lily always shorthands the name of the person who brought it in along with the date, right above the price. See? It says here: ‘B. Craven, 4/11.’”
Betty wasn’t about to let some guy with a quick mind outfox her. “Yes, but, why on earth would you think that –”
“Betty, I’ve heard you speak at the town council meetings. You always sit on the right side of the aisle and I’m always on the left. Kind of like our politics.” He smiled again and extended his hand. “My name’s Jeff Carroll. I’m glad to finally meet you.”
She stood there, momentarily speechless. But her manners quickly resurfaced. “Pleased to meet you too,” she replied, hoping her disingenuous tone wasn’t too obvious. His handshake was firm, not like so many men who are afraid to demonstrate their spirit. On closer examination, Betty surmised that Jeff looked something like a healthier, more muscular version of General George Custer and a sexier, thinner, and far younger version of Colonel Sanders. With a ponytail. And a biker jacket.
“What part of Texas are you from?” he asked.
Betty wasn’t aware she was letting her Texas inflection give her away. He was rather forward, Betty judged. But if a few moments of harmless banter sold her Biedermeier, she was willing to drop her guard just a bit. She’d pretend she was back on the pageant stage with her big bouffant, answering asinine questions about which world leader she most admired. “Houston. But we moved to Paradox in 1980, so I’m working toward becoming a semi-native.”
“We?” Jeff leaned against an oak chifferobe wardrobe in a relaxed posture.
“Uh, yes.” She realized she was rusty on the pageant shtick. “Well, my husband. But he’s since passed away.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. But to Betty, it didn’t appear he was sorry at all.
There was an uncomfortable pause before Betty turned to the desk. “You know, I bought this piece –”
“I live outside of Paradox, in the unincorporated part.” He chuckled. “Paradox. Sure is an odd name for a town, isn’t it?”
Betty wasn’t sure where in the hell this conversation was headed. “I’m sorry, but I don’t follow you.”
“It means irony or contradiction.”
“Yes, I’m aware of the definition of the word, but I’m not clear on –”
“I think it just seems like a paradox in itself that somebody would give a town that name. ‘I live in Paradox.’ It’s like saying, ‘I live in an illogical place.’”
Betty actually pondered this concept. “I never really thought of it that way.”
“Really? I thought of it the first time I heard the name. That’s why I chose to live outside the city line. I prefer to live outside the irony.”
In this scene, I established not only how Betty and Jeff relate to each other but also how Betty needs to stay in control of the conversation. The theme of “maintaining control” is illustrated throughout the novel, as is the consequence of what sustaining that control does to Betty. Her internal struggle depends upon “keeping up appearances” but her eventual growth will come from releasing her need to do that. In their first encounter, I establish that Jeff can see through Betty’s façade. This is vital to the progression of their relationship and will eventually play out in a pivotal scene later in the novel where Betty must make a major choice.
THE ART OF LISTENING
Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden takes place in the world of medical marijuana. Within that “cannabis culture,” there is an immense and often confusing lexicon. When I started researching this novel, I had no understanding of a lot of those terms. Frankly, there were times I needed a cannabis translator. For example, if a cannabis bud feels really enjoyable to the user, it’s often called “stupid good.” There were also shorthand terminologies for buds and how they are used. A seasoned user would not say, “I am going to vaporize this bud.” Instead, they’d say, “I’m gonna vape it.” It might not sound that different to the casual reader but if you are working in the cannabis industry and you read the book, you would instantly spot any terminologies that ring false.
This is an important point. I chose a subject that involved a lot of unique jargon. In order to sound natural and “real,” I had to spend a great deal of time with different people who work in the cannabis industry. That included growers, caregivers, dispensary owners, and patients. Each of these individuals was versed in lingo specific to their endeavors. In order for me to nail the vernacular, I had to listen a lot more than I talked. This literally meant hanging out with various people for hours on end and just paying attention to how they spoke and interacted or didn’t interact with others. As in any other industry, there is a hierarchy and within that hierarchy there is a different verbiage used. For example, a cannabis grower/farmer might refer to another person as a “dude,” whether that person is male or female. But the owner of the dispensary would typically not call anyone a “dude.” In fact, to do so, would diminish their perceived hierarchy. The only way I would understand this differentiation is by listening and recognizing the slight but important variations in language.
Exercise 1 I encourage every writer to jettison their comfort zone and listen to people from all walks of life converse. This often involves furtively eves-dropping on conversations. The conversation doesn’t have to be anything eloquent. In fact, the more mundane it is the better, because it forces you to hear the tones, cadence, hesitations…even the pauses that can be loaded with whatever is unspoken. One of the easiest ways to do this is to go to your favorite coffee shop by yourself and sit down at a table near a couple or group of people. Stick your head in your computer or a book, but pay attention to the conversation going on at the other table. Don’t look at the people talking. That makes it even more interesting because you can use your imagination to guess what that particular voice might be attached to. By not seeing the people and just hearing them talk, you will actually hear a lot more. Be aware whether one person likes to step on someone else’s sentences and how that other person reacts to that interruption. Do they, in turn, interrupt at the next juncture or do they sit back, filling the pauses with quiet hesitations? You will be shocked by what you don’t hear as much as what you do hear. In fact, what might be a “boring” conversation becomes a character study, primed and propelled forward by the tone and words expressed.
When you start to really listen to the way different people converse and how they relay information to others, you will understand how to absorb their words and rhythm into your psyche. After you perfect this technique, you can transfer it into your writing in an honest, naturally sounding manner.
TIPS & TRICKS
There are lots of tips and tricks to writing readable dialogue that will help you engage your reader. One of my pet peeves is when writers employ staccato discourse. Avoid falling into this trap whenever possible. Unless it relates back to the sparse manner in which a specific character speaks, staccato dialogue used in excess does nothing to inform us about the characters. And reading a page of,
is not enjoyable in excess. Throw these in occasionally if it fits the scene but too much of this, starts to sound like really bad Hemingway. If you read it out loud, continuous staccato dialogue has a monotonous rhythm that sounds like, “da-da, da-da, da-da.” This will irritate a seasoned reader after awhile and then the skimming of your book will commence. If you have a scene or scenes in your novel like this, go back and figure out where you can interject a few sentences of narrative and/or plump up the dialogue with more descriptive words or reflect back on how that particular character would respond. For example, instead of a character saying, “I liked that,” you could change it to, “Yeah, I liked it. Sure was better than the last time.”
Another technique is learning how to “button” a scene of dialogue. This is another screenwriting term but it’s good to employ this in novels because it gives your scene a defined beginning, middle, and end. “Buttoning” a scene refers to a witty line or a line that wraps up a scene. Once again, Neil Simon was a great master of this technique. Read Simon’s Plaza Suite and you’ll see what I mean. Often, you can button up a scene with a “callback” from a previous scene or reference a term, a comment, etc. within that same scene. “Buttoning the dialogue” gives the sequence a subconscious wrap-up that essentially informs the reader the scene is over, and we’re now going on to the next narrative or chapter.
In Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden, Betty visits her dying friend, Peggy. Earlier in the story, Betty dropped off a box of chocolates for Peggy and is thrilled to find out that she enjoyed them. The term Betty uses, “Fight the good fight,” is mentioned in the first part of the novel to demonstrate how Betty sees the world: i.e., everything is a “fight.” In this scene, the theme of fighting vs. releasing is evident. It made sense to button this scene with that reference, in order to show where Betty was getting in her own way.
Peggy stroked Betty’s hand. “It’s so beautiful, Betty.”
“Everything…it’s all connected. It all makes sense now.”
Betty cocked her head. “What makes sense, darling?”
“Life. Death. It’s just a circle, isn’t it? I understand it now. I just can’t explain it with words. I don’t think words are invented that can describe it. But it’s there. And I feel like…like if I could dive into this moment and into the stillness, it would all make sense. There’s absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Nothing.”
Betty looked into Peggy’s eyes. In all the years they’d known each other, she’d never seen her so at ease and filled with true contentment. “I think you’ve reached a turning point, darling. It’s all up from here!” Betty felt that damned ball again in her throat.
Peggy chuckled and then broke into a soft laugh. “Yeah, you betcha. All up from here!” She stared off into the distance, a smile forming. “I’ll be dancing tonight, Betty. I’m going to be free.” A tear fell down her face, but it didn’t come from sadness.
Betty leaned forward and kissed Peggy’s cheek. “Fight the good fight, dear,” she whispered.
“No. No more fighting,” Peggy gently whispered back to her. “Just love.”
Possibly the most important element to writing good dialogue is that it should define the character. I can’t stress that enough. Dialogue is a character’s personal imprint. Thus, each character’s cadence must be unique to him or her. Even minor characters should be developed and given interesting words to say. It doesn’t matter if I’ve got a character that appears for only one page or less, I still make sure that I inject some kind of language or dialogue that makes sense for that character to express, as well as spinning it with his/her own rhythm.
Tom Reed is a minor character that is only seen twice in Betty’s story. But I needed to make him as annoying as possible from the first time he arrives on the page.
“Hiya! Is this Betty Craven?” The male voice on the other end was unfamiliar and superficially overconfident.
“Who is this?” It was all she could do to maintain mental equilibrium.
“Tom! Tom Reed! I got your number from Judi Hancock. She said she mentioned me to you at some powwow over the weekend at your house?”
Powwow? In her uncertain state, Betty flashed for a second on herself dressed in Native garb, smoking a peace pipe around a fire. “Uh, yes…right…Tom Reed, I’m –”
“She thinks you and I should get together for drinks. How’s tomorrow look for you? Five o’clock at The Phoenix?”
“Well, Tom, I really am not –”
“Hang on a second. Let’s make that five thirty. I’ve got a tennis game that might go a little late.”
In any other state of being, Betty could have cobbled together a reasonable excuse for not accepting his invitation. But it was all she could do at that moment to sit upright and focus. “The Phoenix?”
“Yeah! It’s a nice little retro sixties joint over at Franklin and Fifth Street. They don’t mind if people linger there.” It sounded as if Mr. Tom Reed was all too familiar with how The Phoenix rolled. “Tom, I appreciate –”
“One second. Got another call comin’ in. See you at five-thirty tomorrow!”
And with that, he hung up.
“TALKING OUT” YOUR CHARACTERS
There is nothing worse when you’re invested in a novel to come upon a section of dialogue that doesn’t ring true for an established character. However, if an author has taken the time to flesh out his/her character(s), this won’t happen because there will be an instinctive understanding of what a particular character would and would never say. Get to know your character(s) inside and out. It’s not enough to know where they went to school or when he or she had their first kiss. You also need to be able to imitate the way they speak and infuse words and even slang into their vocabulary that match their back-story while always sounding realistic. In order to do this with any consistency, you have to become an actor as well as the writer. This brings us to….
Exercise 2 Close your eyes and focus on the character at hand and then quietly push yourself into their body. If they are fat, sit in a chair as they would sit in the chair, keeping in mind how the extra girth will fill up the chair. If they are nervous, imitate that nervousness by repeatedly doing something that demonstrates that anxiety. Pick at your jeans, twirl your hair around your finger, shake your foot back and forth…whatever is fitting for your character. FEEL your character through and through.
Once you are fully inside your character’s body, open your eyes and start talking out loud. Talk about anything but talk exactly like your character would speak, using “I” to personalize the experience. Allow yourself to mindlessly talk but always maintain the tone, vocabulary and pace of your character.
After you’ve mastered this technique a few times, change it up and instead of randomly talking out loud, focus on a specific scene in your novel. If you feel comfortable, get into two characters in the scene and play each one, creating a back-and-forth conversation between them. Yes, this can appear somewhat schizophrenic, so it’s something you want to do in privacy. However, don’t let the oddness of this exercise scare you off. By walking in your main character(s)’ shoes and speaking their words out loud, literary magic can happen when, “out of the blue,” you say something that might shock and enlighten you simultaneously.
AVOIDING THE DREADED “DIALOGUE DUMP”
Remember that dialogue should move your novel forward and not just be a respite from blocks of narrative. However, that doesn’t mean that dialogue should be used to dump information. This goes back to understanding the natural way in which people relay knowledge and tell stories. It’s ridiculous, for example, for a character to say something like, “Hi, Bob. I haven’t seen you since last fall when we traveled to Egypt to dig in the tombs at the Valley of the Kings. How’s your wife? Is she still struggling with drug addiction since the untimely death of her father to suicide?” You might chuckle at that dialogue dump but I’ve read passages nearly identical to that in many books.
Subtle subtext in dialogue between two characters is vital because the reader wants to get to know your characters gradually. It’s the difference between unwrapping a present slowly or tearing it apart. The gift is the same but the process of revealing it can vary.
Midway through Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden, Betty meets her girlfriends for lunch. Peyton, who is in his early twenties and who has been referenced to look very much like Betty’s late, drug-addicted son, Frankie, unexpectedly shows up.
“Hey, Betty!” a voice rang out from the line of traffic. Renée turned and frowned. “Oh, Christ.”
Betty turned. There was Peyton stopped behind a car, his head and upper body poking out of the sunroof in his Prius. There was no way not to see his bold “G.Y.O.” t-shirt fluttering in the May breeze or his much shorter haircut.
He waved and smiled. “Check out the crown, Betty! Got a trim on my lunch hour! See ya tonight!” The traffic opened up and he slid back into the driver’s seat.
Betty turned back to the table, expressionless.
“What’s ‘G.Y.O.?” Helen asked, squinting.
“I believe it stands for God’s Youth Organization,” Betty said, thinking quickly.
Renée let out a hard sigh. “Oh, Christ, Betty! Try ‘Grow Your Own.’ As in grass? And I’m not talking about lawn care.”
So that’s what it stood for, Betty reckoned. “Really?”
“What in the hell was that all about?” Renée asked with a stinging edge. “I told you outside of Peggy’s service. I’m mentoring the boy. He’s obviously a lost soul and I want to help him. As I said before you arrived, I want to be useful.” Judi took another sip of wine. It was clear to Betty she was already a little loose. “He looks terribly familiar, Betty. Almost a twin. Like a ghost from your past? Are you sure you want to drive down that road again?”
Betty regarded Judi’s loaded statement with offense. Strange how none of her friends ever mentioned Frankie’s name or referenced him in any way. And now, right then, it was done in a manner that suggested something shameful or pointless. She took a tense sip of her fizzy water with a lemon twist. “I don’t want to just drive down that road, darling. I want to park on that road and put up a big tent with a sign that says, ‘Come in Peyton. Lunch is waiting. Have a seat and stay a while.’”
Exercise 3 When you are finished with your novel, read all the dialogue scenes out loud. Just like a stand-up comic prepares his twenty-minute set, pare dialogue down to the core, keeping the character’s tone intact but editing anything that feels or sounds repetitive or over-explained. If there is a place to show something rather than have a character tell it, try it and see if you can still get your message across without being too abstract.
Frugality of words can often make a character’s statement more powerful and memorable for your readers. As you read the passages of dialogue out loud, listen to the rhythm and make sure each character maintains their unique, individual sound. If one or two words in a line sound extraneous, cut them out. By doing this, you will tighten up scenes which will move your story along even faster. Editing a word here and a word there can be a painstaking process but I’ve been able to cut as many as ten pages out of a novel by doing this. That’s significant and demonstrates that by employing a more precise editing eye, you can carve an uneven scene into a taut and even more intense scene.
Learning to employ intelligent dialogue is an art. And yes, it can often take years to learn how to do it with a natural, nimble flair. However, it’s well worth your time if it means that your novel will stand out among the rest.
One final tip: try starting some of your chapters with a few lines or more of clever repartee. It immediately draws in the reader and drives them into the action. It’s another one of those writer’s tricks that keeps readers turning pages.
If you paid close attention, I started this article with dialogue, and you’ve been engaged in it until the end.
“This is the end?” you asked yourself.
“Yes,” I said. “This is a wrap. Let’s button it up.”
About the Author…
Bookreporter says, “Laurel Dewey has definitely earned a place in any discussion of the top mystery authors of the present day.” Over the years, the creative team at The Story Plant has been involved in the development of many of the suspense genre’s brightest stars. When we first read national bestselling author Laurel Dewey, we knew we were meeting a writer with as much storytelling energy and raw emotional power as any we’d encountered. Readers share our enthusiasm, writing rhapsodically about their experiences with her novels and their emotional connection with Dewey’s unforgettable main character, Detective Jane Perry. Meanwhile, Dewey’s standalone novel, Betty’s (Little Basement) Garden will let you see the world in a completely different way, and Dewey can even help you grow healthier plants. http://www.laureldewey.com