March 28th to April 3rd: “Dialogue can be tricky. As the author, how do you do it?”

Dialogue can be tricky, as the author has to give each character a unique voice that is also distinct from his or her own. Next week we’ll ask  Lee Child, Jon Land, Joseph Flynn, Jim Duncan, James Scott Bell, Heywood Gould, and Lee Goldberg how they do it?

Previously a television director, union organizer, stage manager and law student, Lee Child is the author of the global #1 bestselling Jack Reacher thriller series.

Living and working away in the state of Ohio, Jim Duncan is a writer of dark, urban-fantasy-suspense. His first novel, DEADWORLD, published by Kensington, will be out in April, 2011.

Lee Goldberg is a two-time Edgar Award nominee and author of the bestselling Monk books based on the TV series. His many TV writing and/or producing credits include SeaQuest, Diagnosis Murder, Martial Law, Monk, and The Glades. He’s also the author of The Walk, Man with the Iron-On Badge, The Dead Man and Successful Television Writing.

Jon Land is the author of 29 books, 17 of which have been national bestsellers.  STRONG AT THE BREAK, the third in his Caitlin Strong/Texas Ranger series, will be published by Forge in June. The 2nd book in the series, STRONG JUSTICE, was named a Top Thriller of the Year by Library Journal and was runner-up for Best Novel of the Year at the New England Book Festival.  The first, STRONG ENOUGH TO DIE, is being developed as a film by producer Michel Shane and director Carl Franklin.

Joseph Flynn was born, raised and educated in Chicago. Then he got restless and started moving around: L.A., Honolulu, L.A. again and Central Illinois. He’s been published by Signet Books, Bantam Books, Variance Publishing and his own imprint, Stray Dog Press, Inc. He’s also had a screenplay optioned by 20th Century Fox. Two of his e-book titles, The President’s Henchman and The Next President are currently ranked in Amazon’s top 50 for political fiction. His e-book title Gasoline, Texas is at this moment ranked #6 in political humor.

James Scott Bell is the bestselling author of Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books) and numerous thrillers, the latest being the e-book Watch Your Back. The former fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest, he has taught writing at Pepperdine University and numerous conferences in the United States, Great Britain and Canada. He lives and writes in L.A. Visit his website and his blog.

Heywood Gould got his start as a reporter for the New York Post. Later he financed years of rejection with the usual colorful jobs – cabdriver, mortician’s assistant, bartender. He has written thirteen books and nine screenplays, including “Fort Apache, the Bronx,” “Boys From Brazil,” “Cocktail,” “Rolling Thunder,” “Double Bang.” He has directed four features including “One Good Cop” starring Michael Keaton, “Trial By Jury” with William Hurt and “Mistrial” with Bill Pullman. His last book “Leading Lady” (2008) was a finalist for the Hammett Award. His new book, “The Serial Killer’s Daughter” comes out April 30, 2011. Please visit his website.

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  1. “Did I tell you Fred hired someone to kill me?”

    Not a bad line of dialogue, but it wasn’t the product of my imagination. I heard it while taking a walk with my wife in the park near our home. A pair of middle-aged, Midwestern women, a blonde and a brunette, were walking toward us when the brunette dropped that little conversational bomb.

    It never occurred to her that anyone might be paying any attention to her conversation. But I was listening. It’s a habit with me. I like to collect turns of phrase. I enjoy hearing how people mangle grammar and syntax. I love to listen in when people attempt to hurdle polysyllabic names.

    The death threat the woman in the park mentioned wasn’t the only one I’ve overheard. Taking the MetroLink in St. Louis from Lambert Airport to Union Station, I heard an African-American man speaking on his cell phone. He was telling his “baby” sister what he would do to the man who had beaten her.

    “You tell Gerald he’s at your house when I get there, I’m gonna kill his ass.”

    Both comments concerned the subject of murder, but each was voiced distinctively. So how do you decide which words to put in which character’s mouth. First, you have to know your characters. I write bios for mine. Then you use what you hear in the real world. You don’t have to repeat someone’s exact words — unless they’re really cool — but you use actual street talk, shop talk and office talk as starting points to which you apply fitting tones, accents and pauses.

    Do your preparation, train your ear and your dialogue will be fine — and if you put the wrong words in a character’s mouth, he’ll all but look at you and say, “Hey, man, that ain’t me.”

  2. Wow, that’s really the $64,000 question! Dialogue is kind of the Holy Grail of fiction writing in general and thriller writing in particular. And it’s also the toughest to teach in any setting or format. I’ve heard of maybe a hundred different exercises writing teachers and instructors use to teach dialogue and almost all of them, frankly, suck. If you’re still reading this, you probably have had the same experience as I, so throw out everything you’ve heard or been taught and let’s start with some new thinking

    Dan Levy is quite accurate “characters have run the gamut from Israeli intelligence, to a reformed mafia Vega casino owner, to male and female Texas ranger, to a hit man who suddenly finds compassion for a high school class.” You know what the dialogue of all those characters have in common? I didn’t write it. That’s right, I didn’t. The hardest part of the writing process becomes the easiest when as writers we let our characters do the talking instead of us imposing our words upon them.

    Most of us visualize our scenes in our heads as we write them, but we don’t always hear as well as we see. The key is to know and love your characters, even or especially the evil ones, so much that they tell you what they want to say and all you do is type it. Kind of like taking dictation. Do that and they will always surprise you. For example, the giant Venezuelan assassin who appears in my Caitlin Strong books decided he wanted to work out his conflicted soul by speaking with priests in confessionals wherever he goes. I have absolutely no idea where that came from, but those conversations are how his character evolved and all I did was listen to what he was saying and race to type as fast as I could. That kind of unpredictability is what makes telling stories fun—that’s right telling stories, not just writing them. Because ultimately we are all storytellers first and foremost and, remember, the first storytellers who practiced the oral form of the art acted out their characters. They didn’t just write dialogue for them, they spoke it. And that’s the effect we must strive for to make the process of dialogue the most fun and vital of anything in the writing process.

  3. Dialogue, to me, is probably the funnest part to write in a story. As a huge plotter, I pretty much know the course of the action throughout before I put a single word on the page. It helps me stay focused. I’m not big on doing a lot of character bios. Hell, half the time I forget an mc’s eye color and have to track down a prior reference to it to make sure I don’t change it mid-book. Beyond plotting out all of the details though, I spend a good deal of time pre-writing, talking with characters in my head. I put them in scenes, hit the “play” button, and kind of see what happens. Sometimes I’ll ask them questions to see what sort of answers they come up with. By the way, this isn’t as split-personality as it might seem.

    When I got editorial feedback on Deadworld and its sequel, The Vengeful Dead, one of the more common refrians was, “too much talking here.” Like I said, dialogue is fun. It’s how a good deal of characterization gets played out in stories. Often, I think, a single line of dialogue does more to represent a character than pages of action. I don’t mull over words a lot, trying to get just the right turn of phrase. If the characters are cemented well enough in my head, they come out naturally. The trick of course, I think, is to understand your characters well enough, to get into their heads enough that you don’t have to think about it. Sometimes, the hard part is being able to type fast enough to get their words down on the page before I forget what they’re saying.

    One of the harder parts with dialogue, for me, is distinct voices among various characters. It’s difficult to keep yourself out of the characters entirely, as we have our own ways of thinking and talking, and experiences that limits the range of what we’re capable of doing on the page. Listening to other people talk, lots of reading across a variety of authors, and such, can do a lot to expand our options in this regard. When I originally wrote Deadworld, it was in first person p.o.v. and it used more than one. One of the issues I had was making two female FBI agents sound uniquely different enough. In the end, I dropped the first person p.o.v. and rewrote the story in third person. I’ve been with these characters long enough now that I could probably pull it off better. The more characters you are switching between the more difficult it is, I think, to keep from having characters bleed over from one to the other. Anyway, these are issues I have, and I’m sure other authors are more capable than I at pulling this off.

    Regardless, dialogue is likely the key attribute in a story for bringing it to life for the reader. It presents the quickest, most effective way to let the reader know just who the character is and what they are like. When I write, it’s the way I bring them to life for myself, which is why I likely end up editing dialogue more than any other part of the story. Not that the dialogue is bad, mind you, but more so because I like my characters and enjoy interacting with them so much that sometimes I’m not doing much to move the story forward. It’s a subtle balance to only talk as much as you need for the story and not interfere with how the character is as a person. As we know, people in general engage in a lot of interesting conversation that really doesn’t go anywhere.

  4. Dialogue is the fastest way to improve a manuscript. Or sink it. When it’s done well, it gives the reader a subconscious feeling of confidence in the author. That goes for editors and agents, too.

    What you want is what I call “orchestration.” You don’t want the Albuquerque All Oboe Band. You want characters who sound different and are able to be in potential conflict with each other.

    So I always cast my characters. I get a visual, a headshot. I need to see who’s talking. Then I do a voice journal for each main character, a free form document that is stream of consciousness in the character’s voice. I keep at it until that voice develops into something distinctive.

    None of this takes a great deal of time and beats the old long form character dossier method.

  5. I was taken by Jon Land’s point that storytelling began as an oral tradition, and each character called for the storyteller to give him or her a distinct voice.

    I credit my father for inspiring me to become a writer — even though he suggested I go to dental school. When I was very young, my dad would tell me bedtime stories. He didn’t read them from a book; he made them up on the spot, and each character was voiced differently. It was thrilling theater performed not in stage lights but by the soft glow of a night light.

    I’m sure this influence has much to do with why I like to listen to other people speak as a source for my dialogue. Then there’s the fact that Dad and I, hewing to cultural tradition, have both kissed the Blarney Stone.

  6. You are what you say.
    Dialogue is character. If you know who your characters are, where they come from and what they want, then you know what they will say in a given situation. Characters are not one dimensional. They don’t speak the same way to everyone in their lives. A cop will not speak the same way to his wife and kids as he does to his colleagues or to suspects.
    Dialogue is strategy. Do your characters decide to coax. coerce, seduce, charm to get what they want. Dialogue will expresses their strategy.
    Dialogue is style. People use dialogue to project an image of themselves. Do they want to be considered smart, funny, professional, truthful. They will use dialogue to show that they belong to a certain group—political party, profession, gang…
    The best lines are often the ones drawn from real life. I like to eavesdrop. People say things a writer could never make up. A conversation can crystallize a character. I like to draw people out. The best advice I ever got was from my City Editor at the NY Post:
    “Shut up and listen.”

  7. This is great stuff!
    This is shaping up to be a master’s class.
    I like Jon Land appraisal based in the oral tradition.
    My favorite piece of advise is Heywood’s editor: “Shut up and listen.” As a father of 3 boys (two of them are pre-teens), I use it a lot. 🙂

    I must confess, same as Joseph Flynn, I like to listen in to strangers too. Which brings the question, Joseph, have you ever gotten into trouble for it?

  8. I listen only to conversations in public places where people have no expectation of privacy, and I’m very discreet about it, poker faced even.

  9. Everybody speaks differently…that’s because how we frame a thought, how we choose our words, and what we actually have to say are reflections of our personality, our upbringing, our values, our intellect, our emotions, our education, our goals, our physical health, and our psychological stability, among many other things. But that’s obvious.

    There’s a simple test that Michael Gleason, the creator of REMINGTON STEELE, gave me for evaluating whether an exchange between two people is good or not. If you strip the names off the scene, can you tell which characters are speaking simply by their words alone. The dialog spoken by Remington, Laura and Mildred was so distinct and unique, even if they were not in scenes together, it was obvious which character was speaking. His rule was if you could put the same lines in any other character’s mouth, then the dialog sucks.

    You couldn’t put Spenser’s dialog into Hawk’s mouth and vice-versa. Their voices are too distinct. The same goes for Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock, Monk and Sharona, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder, Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller, Columbo and anyone else…I could go on and on.*

    Gleason’s test I still use all the time, even after twenty years as a screenwriter and author. And I’m ashamed to admit how often I flunk and have to rewrite a scene, whether it’s in a screenplay or a book.

    I know a character is well conceived if it’s effortless for me to write in their voices in any situation I put them in. If I have to struggle to find the voice, then the problem is with the conception of the character…or if its a character that has served me well, than with the structure of the scene, which doesn’t create a strong enough conflict, or clear enough stakes, for the character’s, well, character to reveal itself through dialog.

    *side note. This is why I dislike so many of the police procedurals that are on the air now. The dialog is interchangeable and devoid of character…because the characters have no character. They are one-dimensional talking points spouting exposition. The only thing that really identifies their dialog is the expertise reflected in it… “oh, he’s talking about guns, so it’s the gun guy” or “the dialog is about the psychological profile, so it’s the shrink lady.”

  10. I like what Heywood said here:

    “Dialogue is strategy. Do your characters decide to coax. coerce, seduce, charm to get what they want. Dialogue will expresses their strategy.”

    Exactly. One of the ways you get dialogue to stand out is by knowing precisely what each character wants in the scene. (Note: if there’s a character in there who doesn’t want something, kick him out).

    John Howard Lawson, the noted screenwriter, called dialogue an extension of action. It’s part of what the character does to get what he wants.

    Giving each character wants that are in conflict will help you write dialogue that is unique to the characters.

  11. I have another take…

    Dialogue is character. It’s how you learn who someone is, how they think, how they feel. It’s how you get inside their heads (always better, I think, than the author telling you instead, but certainly it’s the only way to do so in a screenplay).

    Dialogue is also conflict. Because the best drama and comedy arise from conflict…and it’s often best expressed in what the characters are saying. If there is no conflict in the scene, the dialogue will inevitably be flat because the characters have nothing to say, nothing to do, no desires or frustrations to express.


  12. It warms my heart to see James invoke John Howard Lawson. Prolific screenwriter, first president of the Writer’s Guild, victim of the blacklist (You Tube his defiant testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee) unrepentant Stalinist–oh well, you can’t have it all–and author of one of the few usable texts on dramatic writing, Lawson could move the story, depict a character and make you laugh or cry with the same line. If you want to experience great dialogue watch one of his movies or the hundreds of others made in the Golden Age.

  13. I once won an award from the Fort Worth evening newspaper (I think it was) for “natural dialog” … which mine isn’t … and nor is anyone else’s. Dialog in books is very far from natural. Many above have extolled eavesdropping, which I love too, and it’s very instructive to notice how incoherent, stumbling, gappy and repetitive real-life conversation is. If we were “natural”, a book would be 1,000 pages long.

    So the trick is to make something grossly unnatural sound natural. And it’s very hard to do that. The “X” factor is subtle and elusive. I think we all agree that dialog is where poor books fail. Poor dialog sounds amateur. Good dialog can suggest stress, accent, and pace, just with a few black marks on white paper. How is it done? I have no idea.

  14. I agree with Lee. Nobody wants to read how ‘real people talk.’ They want to be entertained. The way real people talk is boring.

    I learned a lot as a kid/teenager about novel dialog reading Gregory MacDonald’s FLETCH and CONFESS FLETCH, Robert B. Parker’s early Spensers, George V. Higgins’ FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE and KENNEDY FOR THE DEFENSE, and just about everything from Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry.


  15. Gregory Mcdonald’s dialogue was so good they put it on the cover of his mass market paperbacks. The first time I saw the cover of Fletch it stopped me in my tracks. I bought the book and took it home and read it in one sitting. What made it all the better was that was supposed to be a workday, but a heavy snow had closed the office, though not the store that sold Fletch.

    Another distinctively voiced character created by Mcdonald was Francis X. Flynn, no relation but a kindred spirit.

  16. Wow, these are all great points. To me dialogue is part of story and EVERYTHING in what we do is about story. A young writer once asked the great John D. MacDonald, who always talked about story what exactly the definition was and MacDonald replied, simply: “Stuff happens to someone you care about.” I think a lot of what we’re all saying can be summed up by caring about your characters. Because if you care about them, you know them, or you think you know them until they surprise you. And if you know them you can listen better to their voices they’ve given themselves after you conceived their beings. The “stuff” MacDonald was talking about, the structure and plot, forms the struggle and conflict that brings them to life and infuses their dialogue with vitality, unpredictability, and relevance. So I guess what I’m saying here is that the action and incident that forms the heart of the thriller form also creates the conflict that enriches and empowers characters to act and speak on their own. For me, when a character’s dialogue isn’t crackling right, I always figure it’s because I didn’t define him or her properly in the context of their motivations and the conflict that’s moving the story forward. We need to breathe life into them so they can act and speak on their own.

  17. I agree with Lee & Lee. The idea isn’t to recreate “natural” dialogue, but to write dialogue with a purpose — stylized — that sounds just right for the character and the piece. The illusion is that it’s “realistic” but in fact there’s nothing any character says that is not purposeful in some way. If the author doesn’t know the purpose, find it or cut the lines.

  18. I believe that dialog is real when it can immediately be identified as coming from a particular character. The reality is entirely situational. It sounds (or reads) so right coming out of their mouths, that it strikes you as real and genuine. What’s real about it is not that it’s a conversation that might occur in “real life,” or that its anything a real person might say, but that the words, and how they are said, are seem so true to the character you’ve created.

  19. Yes, and not only true to the character but true to the moment. I love that clunky expositional dialogue that was prevalent in TV dramas of the 50’s, e.g., “So how long have you been our family doctor, Fred? Was it when we first moved here to Los Angeles, what, ten years ago, about the time I got the job at the DA’s office? Or was it before that, when I was working for the Helms Bakery delivering donuts in Whittier, just before I married Claire, your niece?”

    You just can’t be caught slipping information to the readers that way.

  20. Dialogue, in addition to all the attributes mentioned above, has to be consistent with what might be expected from a character’s vocabulary and education. In my first novel, The Concrete Inquisition, there’s a young underling for a drug kingpin. His formal education stopped in elementary school, but after he pulls a big ripoff, he decides he has to educate himself and having come into money he starts reading the Wall Street Journal. He quotes an item from the WSJ to the cop for whom he’s a snitch, but he mangles the vocabulary of the story he’s trying to convey. The scene is played for humor.

    But if you don’t keep a character’s vocabulary consistent with what a read might reasonably expect of him, the humor will be unintentional and the writer will be the butt of the joke.

  21. So agree on what was said above about the “naturalness” of dialogue. How amusing it would look to have every sentence filled with, “uhm…well…you know…” Lol, what a nightmare that would be to read. That said, I think there is a place in dialogue for that naturalness in real speech to creep in. The trick of course is to do it without making the reader aware. How do you get interrupted, jagged speech patterns in without interrupting the flow of reading? It’s a good question I think, and not one I have a ready answer for.

  22. Make it up, but get it right. If you put the wrong piece of jargon or information in a character’s mouth you lose the reader forever.
    To me the toughest part of dialogue knowing when to put in the ,”he saids and “she saids” and when to leave them out.

  23. Natural speech usually is clumsy, disjointed and even slurred. But there are also effective and even brilliant speakers. People whose genius is spontaneous expression. Think of Winston Churchill and Robin Williams. Imagine what a combination of those two would sound like. I like to include at least one gifted speaker in my work every now and then. Just to show they exist, and of course to serve the story.

  24. Heywood, for me “said” is the default, and used only when needed to clarify. We don’t need euphemisms, like, he snorted (unless he’s using and speaking at the same time).

    And no adverbs! As in, he said sarcastically. Uck. The context and dialogue itself should tell us.

    James M. Cain, I think, was the first writer to eschew attributions unless absolutely necessary. He believed the reader should know who’s speaking by the words alone.

  25. I use “said” almost exclusively…and, from a practical standpoint, I drop them to remind people who is speaking, particularly when there are several people in the scene. But mostly I use the placement of my “saids” to control the flow or performance…to the adjust the rythmn/beat of a scene or a speech (particularly when writing humor, as I do in MONK). Robert B. Parker and Gregory MacDonald were great at using “saids” to create a pace to their banter. For me, there is definitely a beat to a good scene…particularly in a script. It’s hard for me to define in words, it’s something I feel. And when the beat is off, the scene doesn’t work for me.

  26. I agree that Lee Child writes great dialogue and for me it’s because his prose is rhythmic. I love dialogue and whole novels, everything combined, that make language-music. In my day job, I work with Shakespeare, Beckett, Pinter and just being around their work pushes me to notice how much meaning lies in arrangement. Oh, and Mamet. He’s got rhythm, too.

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