This coming Sunday, January 15th we’re doing a chat all about dialogue, and our co-host, Kimberly Bell, has lots to share about her process of learning to write authentic conversation.
I get a lot of compliments on my dialogue. In fact, some of the best early advice I got in my career was that my dialogue was my strength, so I should let it shine. But why is it a strength? How? What, exactly, do I do?
I don’t know.
I wish I had a better answer than that. What I do have are some aspects of my life that I think have contributed.
#1 I’ve always been super nerdy
You might not see how this applies to book dialogue, but don’t worry—I’m going to tell you. From my earliest teenage years, I’ve done the majority of my socializing online. In the 90s heyday of dial up internet, video chatting was…not an option. In order for my online friends to really get to know me, I had to learn how to express my personality in typed conversation. It turns out I was good at it, and the positive social reinforcement that followed compounded that skill until it became what you see from me today in blog posts, tweets, and books.
#2 I studied theater…a lot
Like, hardcore studied. Many, many years of studying. Not every play comes with stage directions, and even when it does, there’s a lot left to be interpreted between the lines of dialogue. I spent a lot of time diving into the subtext of dialogue and the cause-and-effect relationship it has with actions and emotions. Because of that, often times when I am writing my scenes I only write the dialogue, and fill in the rest later. If all you had was the words your characters say out loud, would readers be engaged? If not, there’s work to be done.
#3 My family is hilarious and competitive
Words are a sport in my family. Clever comebacks, funny stories, the ability to have a deep and meaningful conversation, and to bring someone else around to your way of thinking via words—all highly valued. All seen and used over and over again, across many dinner tables and over many glasses of wine. My family is not an activities family. We don’t hike together. We don’t have a board game night. When we get together, we sit and we talk. FOR HOURS. It’s just what we do. I probably clocked more conversational hours by age twenty than some people do their entire lives, just from family time alone.
So, what’s the takeaway? You can’t go back in time and make yourself nerdy in the 90s. You could try to get a technical theater degree, but who has time for that? And your family is your family—you’re stuck with whoever you ended up with, even if they hate words. But all of those things actually point to just one thing: Practice.
The best way to become a dialogue expert is to talk to people—and translate it to text. There are nuances you will miss, at first, but if you study it as a craft you can get it.
Some tips to get you started:
- Real people rarely use proper grammar or complete sentences. Slang, starting sentences with but & and—these are things people do when they’re talking out loud.
- Real people interrupt each other. Not every sentence or thought gets finished in a conversation. Some threads get dropped or left behind.
- There are extreme differences in the way people talk to each other, based on their level of familiarity, comfort, and power dynamics.
- Dialogue doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If two people with a history are talking to each other, they won’t explain something they both already know (no matter how badly you might need your reader to know it).
- Real people frequently do not say what they mean. Subtext and sarcasm, or the lack of them, are powerful tools for characterization and emotional context.
Like most things, dialogue can be learned. I learned it as a kid, but there’s nothing stopping you from learning it now. Read your dialogue outloud. Compare it to conversations you have with friends, family, and people you have easy interactions with. Does it have the same level of smoothness? Does it flow in the same way? You’re surrounded by examples of real life dialogue, you just need to pay more attention to it.
Someone else might have different/better advice for you, but this is what I’ve got.
Golden Heart-nominated historical romance novelist, Kimberly Bell, has her next release January 30th 2018 ,A SCANDAL BY ANY OTHER NAME, through Entangled Select. It’s the second in a series following THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING SCANDALOUS. Her debut A CONVENIENT ENGAGEMENT was released February 2016 by Penguin/Intermix, followed by A DANGEROUS DAMSEL and A BALLROOM TEMPTATION. She is repped by Rachel Brooks of BookEnds Literary Agency.