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It’s All About Dialog…or Dialogue

July 29, 2010

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Dialog or dialogue? Actually, the former is correct and the latter has become the norm due to our ever-changing English language, but we’re not here to discuss how to spell the word. We’re going to talk about writing dialog.

I’ve never really thought about the process of writing dialog until HC Palmquist asked me to do a guest post on a different blog that shall remain nameless unless she wishes to announce the link in the comments. It’s a blog that’s going bye-bye, and she can’t keep up with me and all of my blogs anyway. Hell, I can’t keep up with my blogs!

For me, writing dialog just comes naturally, I suppose. I mean, after all, it’s a conversation, right? It makes sense for me because dialog is usually the first thing I “hear” when a new story begins–someone either monologuing or two characters having a conversation. And that’s what it should be – natural conversation, as though you’re having the discussion with your best friend. Those types of conversations always lead to something, somewhere. Unless you’re like me – I can talk for hours about nothing. 🙂

Okay, that was a bad joke. Moving on …

I know some writers stress over having to write dialog. If it isn’t done correctly, it just doesn’t work for the characters or the story. Dialog needs to tell us something about the characters and it needs to move the story along. I mean, you certainly don’t want your characters debating the finer points of knitting or the like unless it’s pertinent to the story, maybe somehow used as a metaphor for something greater. Yeah, I’m having trouble picturing that one myself, but I’d love to see somebody try it. If I knew anything about knitting, I’d give it a shot.

Let’s look at an example of dialog from my own work, Nemesis:

My fingers slip into the ice bin as I walk by and I quickly toss the piece over my shoulder. I hear a faint clink and a splash before Clancy laughs again, drowning out the crescendo of music that begins the next song.

“Damn,” he says. “Was that just a one-time shot or what?”

I turn and lean against the bar, and then give him a nod upward, silently asking, “What of it?”

He smiles, and it weakens my knees. It’s a good thing I’m leaning against the bar.

“Can you do it again? I bet you can’t.”

My lips curve up and I push away from the bar with all the strength I can muster. “What’s the bet?”

“If you miss, you strip for me,” he says, that wicked grin of his stretching across his handsome face. This is always the first thing he offers in our bets. I never take it, but it’s not like the man is serious. It’s just a game we play.

“I told you I only strip in the bedroom, Clancy,” I say, just like I do every time he suggests me stripping. “Not gonna happen.”

“Someday you’re gonna say yes.”

“Bet’cha I won’t.” His eyes have gone pure, delicious evil at this point, and damn it if that isn’t a weakness for me because my legs are about to go Jell-O. “Well?” I say, trying to banish the visual of that man with his hands all over me, because those eyes are already there.

He concedes and bows his head. “Okay, if you can hit my glass again, I’ll give you a raise.”

I let out a short laugh because by now I’m making twelve bucks an hour due to these lovely little bets of his. Most bartenders make much less. “How much?”

Those fine brows go up. “Another dollar?”

“And if I miss?”

His eyes scan the bar, and then move out to the rest of the club. They return to me and have taken on the evil glint once more. Oh, God help me. “Take charge of the girls.”

“Fuck you, no bet,” I say and toss another piece of ice at him, a small one, which hits him right in the center of his forehead.

He jumps from his seat. “Damn it, you could’ve hit me in the eye!”

I cross my arms over my chest and lean against the bar once more. “I wasn’t aiming for your eyes.”

So, what’s happening in this scene? For one, we learn a little bit about both Nemy and Clancy. We know that they like each other. We know that Clancy has mentioned the stripping many times, and that he’s talking about a private dance, not one in the club. We also know that these types of bets have happened quite a bit due to the amount of money Nemy is making. We also see some foreshadowing. Do you see it? It’s fairly obvious, at least to me, but I wrote the damn thing. What else can you find in this little snippet of dialog? We can see that Nemy is very confident, especially with that last line. It’s what makes her so appealing as a character, particularly to men. I’ve had several men read parts of Nemesis, and every one of them has fallen in love with Nemy. That makes me giggle, but also tells me I’ve done a good job with setting her character up and with the language. Dialog is extremely important here. It shows us who she is by the words she uses when she speaks.

The devil of it is in the details that surround the dialog. This shows us what’s happening. It’s the action that’s taking place during the conversation. It can be tricky at times. Sometimes what’s going through my head while writing the dialog is precisely this: “Okay, what is he doing when he says this, and what is her reaction to it, physically?” Other times, I just write out all of the dialog and come back later to fill in the details and description. There are times when I’m in description overload and I have to write it down NOW, but most of the time it’s just the conversation that I write first with minimal detail, just enough to move the story along for me until I can go back and add more.

Let’s see what this excerpt looks like without the physical details:

“Damn,” he says. “Was that just a one-time shot or what?”

“What of it?”

“Can you do it again? I bet you can’t.”

“What’s the bet?”

“If you miss, you strip for me,” he says.

“I told you I only strip in the bedroom, Clancy,” I say. “Not gonna happen.”

“Someday you’re gonna say yes.”

“Bet’cha I won’t.”

“Well?” I say.

“Okay, if you can hit my glass again, I’ll give you a raise.”

“How much?”

“Another dollar?”

“And if I miss?”

“Take charge of the girls.”

“Fuck you, no bet,” I say.

“Damn it, you could’ve hit me in the eye!”

“I wasn’t aiming for your eyes.”

Now, with the last two lines, we have no idea what’s happened because the physical detail isn’t there, so they don’t make sense. In fact, we don’t know what happened in the beginning either. While dialog is important in the way the characters interact with one another, the detail is also very important because it shows us what’s happening.

Let’s see if we can find another example. This time we’ll use my book Dusk of Death. I’ve recently changed the POV in this book from 3rd person to 1st person. Not sure which I’m going to use, but we’ll go with this for now:

“Good evening, sunshine,” was Terry’s response at seeing me climb out of my Jeep, disgruntled and shivering. Terry was a detective with the Phoenix Police Department, and a pain in my ass since the day I met him.

“Why’s it so freakin’ cold?” I asked.

“Um, it’s wintertime, Armen,” Terry replied.

“It’s a desert!”

“Where are you from again?” he asked, a comical grin spreading across his face. It suited him. Terry was tall with short-cropped light brown hair and sideburns, otherwise known as ‘chops,’ down to his jaw line. He had several tattoos covering his muscular arms and, I suspected, other places, as well. I thought he was insane for wearing only a t-shirt under his Kevlar vest.

“Hell!” I spat. To call it by any other name would only confuse him.

Terry laughed. “With that snippy attitude of yours, it wouldn’t surprise me.” He stepped closer to me. “Where’s your coat?”

“I left it at home,” I answered. “I didn’t think it’d be this damn cold.”

“Wait here, I’ll get one for you,” he said before stepping away while I shivered uncontrollably. He came back to me and held out a coat dangling from his fingers. I slipped it on and he handed me a cup. “Here, I thought you might like this, too.”

The scent of the brew reached my nostrils before my hand took the cup. “Thanks, Terry.”

“Not a problem for my favorite forensic scientist,” he replied. I rolled my eyes.

“What are you buttering me up for?” I asked, right brow up in a sardonic arch.

“Nothing,” he replied. “I can’t say you’re my favorite forensic scientist?”

My head tilted to the side. “You all think I’m some freak of nature; the pretty girl who plays with dead people. Why in the world would I be your favorite forensic scientist? Better yet, why would you even have a favorite forensic scientist?”

He laughed again. “My, you’re touchy tonight,” he said. “Didn’t sleep well today?”

I shook my head. “The days are too short,” I replied, then sipped my coffee. My nose crinkled as the burnt caffeinated beverage slid over my tongue.

He nodded. “Then you must love summer.”

Again, my head shifted from left to right, swishing my long blonde ponytail as though it were a pendulum. “The nights are too short.”

His boisterous laugh echoed in the surrounding area. “A no-win situation for you, then?”

“Pretty much,” I replied. “I’m screwed either way.”

“Come on,” he said. “If you want to see this before he gets here, we’d better hurry.” He took my elbow and started to lead the way.

I jerked my arm from his grasp. “I am not a child who needs to be coaxed into the mouth of Hell, Terry.”

He looked back at me with a blank stare, unhurt by my remark. “Your choice of words always amazes me, you know,” he said as we neared the building. “I mean, who says something like that, really?”

“Apparently, I’m alone in my vernacular.”

Terry chuckled. “Is that your word of the day?”

I grinned. “No, actually the word of the day was smartass, and it amazingly had your picture next to it.”

“Ah yes, well, I am quite photogenic,” he replied with a toothy grin.

I giggled and immediately slapped a hand over my mouth. Only Terry could make me giggle and I despised him for it sometimes. “So, tell me what I’m about to see.”

He shook his head. “Nah, I’d much rather see the look on your face when you see it without prior description.”

“Damn, it must be bad.” Especially if he wasn’t telling me because sometimes he got a kick out of watching my face twist into different expressions. The more grotesque the description, the higher my brows went until they cinched nearly together in the center of my forehead.

“No, unique would be more appropriate a word,” he replied as he stepped through the door.

I love the way these two characters converse. It makes me want to write a second book, which could be a strong possibility once I edit this first book.

What do we get from this conversation? We can kind of figure out that Armen isn’t exactly human, or at least hasn’t always been human. I don’t need to write: “Armen is a fallen demon.” It’ll come out in her thoughts, the events that take place, and some of it even in the dialog she uses. We know that Terry has a thing for her, and that she wants nothing to do with that. Again, physical detail surrounds the conversation. Can you see Terry with that big toothy grin? I can, vividly. And with the next line, we can tell he just looks ridiculous because it makes Armen giggle – something she obviously doesn’t do very often, since he’s the only one who can do that to her.

We learn a lot about the characters during these conversations because of what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, and what the physical reactions are that surround it. We also learn about what’s coming next, and with the last few lines in this example, we know it isn’t going to be pretty. That’s what moves the story forward. If the dialog isn’t moving the story forward, it shouldn’t be there in the first place. It’s like dead air on a radio. Dialog is story, and it should all move forward.

Both of these excerpts are from the first chapter of each book. The difference between these two examples is that Nemesis is written in first-person point-of-view (POV) present tense, and Dusk of Death is written in first-person POV past tense when it used to be third-person POV. I’ve changed it recently as a test. The other difference is the genre: one is contemporary romance and the other is a horror thriller. In fact, both can be considered as ALL dialog because of their POV. That’s how I see it, anyway. As you may notice, the POV doesn’t matter really when it comes to the actual dialog within the text. I could change either of these excerpts to a different POV and yet, the dialog will remain the same. The only change would be in how I show the description surrounding the dialog.

As a matter of fact, let’s try that with the first one:

Nemy’s fingers slip into the ice bin as she walks by and she quickly tosses the piece over her shoulder. She hears a faint clink and a splash before Clancy laughs again, drowning out the crescendo of music that begins the next song.

“Damn,” he says. “Was that just a one-time shot or what?”

She turns and leans against the bar, and then gives him a nod upward, silently asking, “What of it?”

He smiles, and it weakens her knees. It’s a good thing she’s leaning against the bar.

“Can you do it again? I bet you can’t.”

Her lips curve up and she pushes away from the bar with all the strength she can muster. “What’s the bet?”

“If you miss, you strip for me,” he says, that wicked grin of his stretching across his handsome face. This is always the first thing he offers in their bets. She never takes it, but it’s not like the man is serious. It’s just a game they play.

“I told you I only strip in the bedroom, Clancy,” she says, just like she does every time he suggests her stripping. “Not gonna happen.”

“Someday you’re gonna say yes.”

“Bet’cha I won’t.” His eyes have gone pure, delicious evil at this point, and damn it if that isn’t a weakness for her because her legs are about to go Jell-O. “Well?” she says, trying to banish the visual of that man with his hands all over her, because those eyes are already there.

He concedes and bows his head. “Okay, if you can hit my glass again, I’ll give you a raise.”

She lets out a short laugh because by now she’s making twelve bucks an hour due to these lovely little bets of his. Most bartenders make much less. “How much?”

Those fine brows go up. “Another dollar?”

“And if I miss?”

His eyes scan the bar, and then move out to the rest of the club. They return to her and have taken on the evil glint once more. Oh, God help me. “Take charge of the girls.”

“Fuck you, no bet,” she says and tosses another piece of ice at him, a small one, which hits him right in the center of his forehead.

He jumps from his seat. “Damn it, you could’ve hit me in the eye!”

She crosses her arms over her chest and leans against the bar once more. “I wasn’t aiming for your eyes.”

As we can see, not much difference in the dialog. In fact, I didn’t change the dialog at all. The only real change I had to make was with “Oh, God help me” because I needed her to have the thought in her head, or I could have just deleted it, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one for the character due to her personality.

So, you need to write some dialog for your characters and you’re not exactly sure how to go about it. Well, get inside their heads, pretend you’re one of them or both of them, whatever works for you. We all know that being a “writer” is just an excuse for split personality disorder or schizophrenia anyway. I’m kidding, but you have all those voices in your head. Hone in on them, figure out which ones you want to listen to, and write down what they’re saying. But here’s a suggestion: say it aloud. Yes, if you’re writing in a coffee shop, you may look a little insane, but who the hell cares. Get a Bluetooth if you’re worried about that. This way, it looks like you’re on the phone with someone. You’re writing your story down and working out the kinks by reading it aloud. The story always sounds different when you speak it, and with dialog, it needs to sound real.

That’s the best I can do on this topic right now. I’ll take questions anyone may have and try to answer them the best I can, or other authors/writers are more than welcome to chime in. 🙂

Ready… set… GO!

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 29, 2010 9:25 pm

    I’m very good at dialogue (I like it spelled with the “ue”, but then, I sound like an antiquated British novel, remember? haha)

    Dialogue is one of the first things I mastered–the banter, the subtle tones that speak more than the actual words. I think sometimes it helped that I was so shy as a kid, and so introverted as an adult, because I watched and listened. And doing both is a necessity, because interaction consists mostly of nonverbal communication. Often what ISN’T being vocalized is more important–and more truthful–than the words being said.

    • NL Gervasio permalink*
      July 29, 2010 9:30 pm

      You know, I never thought about my shyness as a kid, introversion as an adult, and tendency to people watch no matter where I am as the reason for writing dialog the way I do.

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