Thursday, September 9, 2010

Talking the Good Talk—My Tips on Dialogue

If you’re writing fiction, dialogue is most likely going to make up a good part of your book, so you want it to be topnotch. Dialogue is a major means by which any character’s voice is expressed, and dialogue was probably the most difficult challenge I faced as a new writer. My novel, Ivy’s Ever After, was my first serious attempt at writing fiction. My prior fiction history consisted of two short stories I eked out while taking a creative writing class in college (boy, did they stink!), and an abandoned attempt to write a children’s novel several years later (I made it as far as Chapter 4). I didn’t have much experience with dialogue, and it wasn’t really working out for me. I’d re-read chapters I’d spent hours writing, only to discover that all the characters sounded the same. Grrrrr—how boring! I wanted characters that came alive in the reader’s imagination, that jumped off the page, that exuded interesting and distinctive personalities. Don’t we all? And since this was something greatly on my mind while I was writing Ivy, I thought I’d use my Project Mayhem debut—and my very first blog post ever!!—to share some of the tips that helped me the most with dialogue.

I learn best through observation and examples, so I made a point of reading lots in the realm of middle-grade (which you should be doing anyway, duh). When I came across a book with particularly great dialogue, I’d read those sections over again. I’d try to pinpoint what about these characters’ voices made them so enticing, and how I could apply these methods to my own writing. I checked audio books out of the library and listened to them while I commuted to work, made long drives to visit friends out of town, and did boring stuff around the house like scrubbing the kitchen floor. There was something about hearing dialogue performed out loud that really helped the nuances sink in. (This is one of the reasons, by the way, that I always read everything I’ve written out loud. But I think it’s especially important for dialogue. You’ll be able to hear if it sounds unnatural or just doesn’t flow.) 

During this time, someone at a writing conference passed along her favorite tip for dialogue. You should, she told me, be able to take any line of dialogue out of context and be able to tell which character said it—their speech styles should be that distinctive. This was great advice, but not advice I agreed with in its entirety. I mean, come on, if your character says something like, “No,” or “I’d like a glass of water,” do you really need to go out of your way to make that super-duper distinctive (“Nay, forsooth, my friends,” “Gimme a glass of water or I’ll smash your face, punk.”)? I think if you get carried away with this, your dialogue can start sounding over-the-top, and you’ll just end up annoying your readers. But, in general, this has been a useful tip for me. I certainly think you should be able to identify large chucks of dialogue or any especially significant dialogue using this method. 

Most helpfully, I made a list of my major characters and what I thought their speech style should be like given their background and personality. Did they talk fast or slow? Were the thoughts expressed in a scattered or orderly fashion? Did they use a lot of expressions and if so, what kind? Did they have a speech impediment? Stutter or slur their words? 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Ivy’s Ever After, it’s a fractured fairy tale about a princess and a dragon who team up against a (not-so-nice) handsome prince. (You can read Chapter 1 at my website, Here’s how I tried to distinguish the speech styles of several characters: 
  • Ivy, my princess, is far from a proper lady. She’s sassy, opinionated, bold—and her dialogue shows it. She doesn’t stand on formality, so she often uses colloquialisms or speaks in sentence fragments. She doesn’t hide emotion, as a proper princess would—when she gets angry or excited, the exclamation points start coming out! Sometimes she interrupts other characters if she doesn’t like what they have to say. (Oh, how I love this feisty princess—but no one said she had the best manners in the world.)
  • Elridge, my dragon, is not your typical dragon. He’s timid rather than ferocious. He stutters when he gets nervous. He uses the expression, “Dear me,” a lot, often uttered at faint-hearted moments, sort of the way Piglet was always muttering, “Oh d-d-dear,” in those Winnie the Pooh cartoons I loved when I was a kid.
  • Ivy’s father, the king, speaks formally, as you would expect of a royal monarch. He tends to use complete sentences and proper sentence structure, and his vocabulary is a little more sophisticated than that of the other characters.
  • Ivy’s fairy godmother, Drusilla, is overly excitable. She tends to get caught up in a single train of thought and ramble on and on. . . . Can you say run-on sentence?
  • The trolls in Ivy’s world live in large underground caverns. I wanted them to sound different than their human counterparts—they live a very different subterranean existence, after all—so I peppered their dialogue with a lot of rock- and cave-related insults and expressions: “Boulder-brain!” “Dripstone!” “Feldspar fungus!”
I hope some of these methods are as helpful to you as they were for me. And, even though Ivy’s Ever After was released back in May, other Project Mayhemers have been so great about giving away copies of their books that I’m not about to let them show me up! So, please follow and leave a comment to win a signed copy of Ivy’s Ever After. And thanks for stopping by :)


  1. Marcha Bernard9/9/10, 9:08 AM

    This is exactly the type of post I was looking for! Thanks for the great info! This will help me for sure!


  2. I love a dragon that says, "Dear me!"

  3. Good advice about making a list of specifics about characters' speech patterns. I hadn't thought of that

  4. Gosh, Dawn! I'm so not a list maker! I wish I could be like you with your characters! My writing style is a chaotic mess! ;)

    xoxo -- Hilary

  5. This is a brilliant post! I love the dragon...I've even got the book flying over from America! I've talked it up to my indie too, I'm hoping she stocks LOADS!


  6. Tanya Butcher9/10/10, 4:58 PM

    These are great tips and much needed!

    Thanks, Dawn!


  7. I enjoyed reading about your journey as a writer; even more, I look forward to reading "Ivy's Ever After" and following your future literary projects. Thank you for the contest!

  8. I love your fun examples. And yes--I love that you can admit that some early writing stunk! (LOL) My first novel wound up in the trash, and very much deserved its new home. :)

  9. I think the things you mentioned are why I so enjoyed reading this book. I loved Ivy because she wasn't the proper princess and even Eldridge was a timid dragon who had no fire. I am certainly glad you have a few more books in the works and am eagerly awaiting any news. Since following this site I've certainly learned so much more about what goes into the writing process.

  10. Interesting idea, Dawn. I like the idea of being intentional about noting the distinctives of a character's speech. I'm going to try this out with my next project. Thanks!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!