Say It Again, Sam: A Theatre Gal’s Approach to Dialogue

Photo credit: Rennett Stowe / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Photo credit: Rennett Stowe / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

BOO, and Happy Halloween!  Does writing dialogue scare you enough to make your hair stand on end like this guy on Halloween? Fear not!

At nearly every stage of my writing journey from fledgling to now, I’ve been paid compliments on my dialogue.  Dialogue is one of my favorite aspects of writing, especially during that darn first draft.  If I could, I’d write the whole thing in dialogue.  I think this stems from my music and theatre background because I tend to hear a story first through dialogue. I like to get up out of my writing chair and act out scenes, practicing inflections.  Fun times for sure when my hubs or my little walks in while I’m in the throes of drama.  Honestly, I’ve done some of my best work in my office.  My acting coaches would be so proud!

There are the obvious dos and don’ts to writing dialogue that we as writers are taught.  I promise I’ll get to a few of my fan favorites – there’s too many for me to cover them all.  First I want to share some things I learned in my theatre background that I believe carried over into my work as it relates to dialogue.

What is said ABOUT a character is more revealing than what a character says

I remember this ah-ha moment in Scene Study Class back at my Alma Mater, Ithaca College.  I’d been having a hard time fully developing a character because I had very little in the way of dialogue in the scene.  Once I opened my ears to what other characters had to say about mine, the scene and character came alive.  As a writer, a little insight from a secondary character about the Hero or Heroine through dialogue can carry a lot of weight with the reader, especially if that secondary character has been presented as knowledgeable or trustworthy.

Don’t Act, REACT

Of course, we are taught a form of this as writers as well, but for some reason, I draw more so from the acting days in this regard.  What actions provoke a character to speak vs. move, or sometimes both? Often times, by not verbally responding, a character conveys much more than if they opened their mouths and poured out a soliloquy.

Listen Loudly

The Hubs has a background in acting as well.  This is a big one for him. You will notice in movies, TV and in live stage performances, the most successful actors are listening, not just for their cue, but they are living so “in the moment” they become an extension of the actor who is currently taking center stage.  You never know when one of your cast mates is going to have a moment of inspiration and mix things up on stage, or drop a line.  A good listener won’t miss a beat and neither should the characters in your WIP.  I’m a plotting pantser, regardless of whether you’re a plotter or pantser, or both like me, when characters go “off script”, you will find much truth and honesty from your characters in the moment.

(Official) Dos and Don’ts of Writing Good Dialogue

Here is a small sampling of the traditional tried and true dos and don’ts of writing good dialogue.  I’ve used some examples from RETURN TO AUDUBON SPRINGS, the first book in my Brothers of Audubon Springs series. There is a lot of information out there on the topic of writing dialogue.  I’ve read entire books on the subject but here are just a few that resonate with me.

Never use dialogue as an information dump

I’m not talking about the little bits of information passed between characters in dialogue. I’m talking about monologues that sound like detailed history lessons by way of explaining back story. Sprinkle it in!

Less is More

People say things the shortest way possible in real life. Read your dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t sound natural, tweak it until it does.  This will often mean pulling out unnecessary words. This is something my CP’s are amazing at staying on top of.  Because I could literally write the entire first draft in dialogue, I have a tendency to have my hero’s especially ramble a bit in the first draft.  I get notes like, “Lovely speech but shorten.”  I’m looking at you, Jenna Blue! Also, look to any words that can be combined.  When we talk we tend to use shortened versions of things.  It’s, he’s, I’d, etc.  

Dialogue Beats

This a great one.  Back in the acting days, scenes were broken down into beats.  Dialogue beats are brief depictions of character action inserted in between dialogue that help bring the scene to life. Dialogue beats help with story pacing and to convey information or emotion. Note: sometimes the action can be silence, a pause, or a simple nod.

“Of course I’m not all right.” She ripped the hat off her head. “Do I look all right?”

Use Action Tags

Instead of always turning to the tried and true, “He said,” “She said,” take the opportunity to remind readers your characters  are physical human beings. Actions accompanying words are a great way to further convey the state of mind of a character.

“Have you lost your mind?” 
“Yes!” He turned off the saw, threw it on the ground, whipped off his protective goggles and tossed them as well. “Why do you ask?”

Beware of Profanity, Slang and Dialects

Depending on your audience, profanity and slang should be used sparingly. You don’t want to run the risk distracting or alienating your reader. The same holds true for the use of dialects. If used too heavily your character might turn into a stereotype. Mention it a few times at the onset and to then sprinkle it in. Trust your readers to pick up the rest.

Above all else, have fun with your dialogue.  I highly encourage you to read your dialogue out loud.  If it doesn’t ring true to your ear, chances are the reader will feel the same way.

I’ll leave you with two thoughts on dialogue. The first comes from a workshop I attended with Virginia Kantra a long time ago that has stayed with me: If the heroine can think it, she can say it, and she can say it to the hero.

The second is more of a general rule of thumb. I can’t recall where I learned this, but I’m inclined to think these words were spoken back at my alma mater.  Good dialogue reveals something new about the character or advances the plot forward. Great dialogue does both at the same time.

What are some of your favorite dialogue exchanges in books or film? What authors do you feel excel when it comes to dialogue?  What dialogue tips would you like to add? Leave a comment and let us know!

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23 Comments

  1. Great blog, RoseAnn. Would love to hear more about your musical theater background someday.

    Reply
  2. Good AM and Happy Halloween to the Femmes!!
    RoseAnn, as always, very interesting and useful information in this post. I like your point about dialog beats. It really breaks things down with the example too! As I’m a former music major (you know) the beats of a scene and especially dialogue are the most important to me. If the ebbs and flows are there, you’ve got some good stuff down on the page.
    Have a great day!
    Nicole

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 1, 2013

      Nicole, I look forward to reading your work some day. The rhythm of a book is important to me as well and a lot of that is driven by the characters in their dialogue

      Reply
  3. Jenna Blue

     /  October 31, 2013

    RoseAnn, fantastic post! I love dialogue, too, and my favorite books are because the dialogue is so real, so good, so accurate to the characters. In fact, was just marvelling over the hero/heroine’s exchanges in Jill Sorenson’s “Aftershock.” Really well done.
    Too funny that you called me out! : ) But, regardless of my call to sometimes condense, your dialogue really shines–carried away or not!

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 1, 2013

      Thanks, Jenna Blue! You are often the voice in my head with my hero’s take too long to make their point in the first draft! 🙂

      I’ll have to check out Jill Sorenson.

      Reply
  4. Great post, and some excellent advice, RoseAnn. Loved RtoAS!

    Reply
  5. I love dialogue, too! For me, some of the best writers are dialogue are SEP, Janet Evanovich, and Julia Quinn. I love when an exchange can make me laugh out loud.

    Love that Jenna got called out in this post. 🙂

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 1, 2013

      It has been a while since I read Janet Evanovich. I checked out on Stephanie Plum after she did the deed with Ranger. Morelli is perfection so, yeah, I’m just like that. I’m going to have to check out Julia Quinn

      Reply
      • I am Team Morelli ALL THE WAY. Seriously. The Ranger thing makes me nuts, but I get she’s catering to 1/2 the audience who wants Stephanie with Ranger. I keep hoping JE will have Stephanie pick a side already. (Morelli, of course.)

  6. I love dialogue too! And the BEST writers are SEP, Rachel Gibson, and Julia Quinn. Just love how they are about to balance the narrative with the dialogue so its not just “talk, talk, talk” which becomes blah blah blah!

    Love ya too, Jenna!

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 1, 2013

      So true, Michele! You really have to find the right balance. Some double nods here worth into checking out.

      Reply
  7. I love that you act out your scenes in your office. I don’t usually speak the dialogue, but I try and visualize my characters. I find authors like Janet Evanovich so easy to read because I get to know the characters through the dialogue. Especially since her Plum series is in first person and you don’t get into the head of the hero.

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 1, 2013

      What is cool about the Plum series (even if I abandoned it myself) is that the voice is so strong, even in the narrative, you get the sense that Steph is talking. She’s a great comedic character. I just saw that book #20 just came out. Maybe one of you can tell me how she and Morelli are doing? 🙂

      Reply
  8. Diana Quincy

     /  November 1, 2013

    How interesting that you act out scenes. I can totally see how that would help give your scenes more authenticity. I loved your snappy dialogue in RETURN TO AUDUBON SPRINGS, so it must be working!

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 2, 2013

      Glad you enjoyed the dialogue in RtoAS. I find that I tend to act out the fight scenes more so than anything else. I’m not sure what that says about me! 🙂

      Reply
  9. Loved this post, RA. Since I too have a theatre background, you took me right back to acting class. These are great tips for making dialogue ring true.

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 3, 2013

      Yes. There are times I think if all the years (and money) wasted on the theatre, but that training serves me well in my writing, and I hope one day as a workshop…but baby steps first!

      Reply
  10. Love this girls!! Thank you. I think JD Robb is a master at this, bringing every little nuance of character through with her dialogue and tags.

    Claudia 🙂

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 3, 2013

      Hi Claudia,

      Agreed! And she makes it seem so darn easy. There is a definite cadence to her writing and dialogue, which might be one of the reasons why her novels are so easy to read and popular. Thanks for stopping by and letting us know your thoughts!

      RoseAnn

      Reply
  11. Mia

     /  November 4, 2013

    Hello RoseAnn,

    You amaze me with all your knowledge. I would love to sit down and pick that talented brain of yours for my manuscript. This blog post is spot on – not that u need little ole me to tell you that. Recently I saw a play and was amazed to realize actors can bring our characters to life. They can really get us.
    As for dialogue I am a late bloomer to the beauty, and pace it creates. Had to read Margaret Mallory before I saw I do not put enough dialogue in my manuscripts. I went for “neither spoke the whole car ride but thankfully it was a short ride.” I’m a little better now with my writing but still not there. Lol.
    Mia

    Reply
    • RoseAnn DeFranco

       /  November 4, 2013

      You had me at talented brain, Mia! I’m glad you were able to draw from the play you saw to see how it relates to your own writing. I love with art inspires art.

      I’m chuckling a bit at your avoidance of dialogue. I’m sure it’s in you. Sing out, sister! 🙂

      Reply

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