Talk Your Way Out of a Jam!

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by Bonnie S. Calhoun

Have you heard novelists say their story was bogged down by inactivity, or that they felt lost in a long drawn out narrative? Well never fear! I have a totally sharp solution…conversation.

That’s write (right). Dialogue is considered to be an action element. It can move any plodding exposé into the realm of frantic excitement, or sweet rest. It can also be used as a vehicle for back story, that evil animal that tries to rear its ugly head and derail the momentum of your beloved tomb.

Alright…I don’t mean to be so dramatic, but this is literally the function of dialogue. It allows you to maintain the action, and keep readers awake. (I’ve never found anyone who could sleep through a dialogue…unless it was a husband being told what chores were on the honey-do list.)

The trick to writing effective dialogue is to write the way people speak. This covers a bunch of the dialogue rules. If you need to, tape a conversation between you and another. Rules start with…

1. Don’t keep using the person’s name in the conversation, especially if it is someone you know well.

2. People having a conversation do not use perfect grammar (unless you’re an English butler), and most of the time you can get away with leaving the “g” off the end of “ing” words…not every single word, but that’s another mechanism of realism.

3. Use contractions, as people do in normal speech. Most people will not say ‘do not’ unless it’s a specific emphasis with the NOT capitalized. The word would normally be ‘don’t’.

4. Leave out the “yawn” moments. Have every drop of conversation move the story forward and don’t play with small talk…unless there’s a specific reason, then note in an internal thought the reason for the snooze moment.

5. Don’t repeat what you are revealing in the narrative, in an additional conversation. Example…It had been a long, hot day. Dan was going to the store for Coca Cola. “I’m going to the store to buy Coca Cola.”

6. Use italics, adjectives, and adverbs sparingly. Ly words should be the bane of your existence. And I’m not saying ‘never’, I’m just saying sparingly. Look at your ‘ly’ words and see if there is a much more eloquent way of stating it, rather than using a single cheap word.

And as far as italics go, they seem to have fallen out of vogue. I once saw a book where there was a literally a WHOLE PAGE of italicized narrative. It about drove me to distraction. Needless to say I didn’t get past that page.

7. Use dialogue tags sparingly, and opt for using action beats to change the tempo.

So this is a down and dirty short version of a lesson in dialogue. Remember…dialogue is your friend!

Bonnie S. Calhoun is owner of the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance, publisher the Christian Fiction Online Magazine, Northeast Zone Director for ACFW, President of Christian Authors Network, Appointment Coordinator for the Colorado Christian Writers Conference and the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writers Conference, and ACFW Mentor of the Year for 2011.

Comments 0

  1. Thanks, Bonnie. I love practical blogs that deal with specific issues. Since I write in the first person, dialogue is always necessary, and I’m learning to do it better.

  2. Great post. One thing I would caution, though, is to be very sparing dropping the g’s in dialogue. This is a hot button for a lot of editors and it can be very easily overdone. I know I get tired of it very quickly. But you are right on target with your comments.

  3. Thanks for your post, Bonnie! I love your way of seasoning important fictional truths with humor. You make them easier to remember and, therefore, to apply. Nice job!



  4. So true Bonnie! I love using dialogue and have been working on perfecting that skill. Super helpful! Thanks

  5. Very solid points. It always gets on my nerves when dialogue is more an exchange of names. “How do you do, Mary?”
    “Fine, George.”
    “Mary, will you get that for me?”
    “Sure, George.”

  6. Excellent post, Bonnie. Essential advice on writing dialogue stripped down to the bare bones. Your point about shaping dialogue to move the story forward is particularly pertinent.

  7. Great advice, Bonnie, especially about using contractions in speech. For some reason they seem to disappear in the writing process. A friend attended a workshop on writing and after reading the samples one of the other teachers asked, “Doesn’t anyone use contractions anymore?” and another chimed in, “Apparently they do not.” LOL. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks, Bonnie. Somehow, I caught onto the dialogue on my own to infuse my fiction. It’s a relief to see that I did something right, even if by accident.

    Still working on the tag vs. action beat issues. After 30 years in newspapers, the tag feels natural. Old dogs, new tricks. But it’s a great trick!

    Now I really need to get crackingly onto the adverbs. I hardly ever realized there was a problem and driftingly flowed along the “ly” enchantedly riverly without longingly look back at anythingly. Honestly.

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