Monday, June 30, 2008

It's all in the words...

Interpretation is everything. In the writer's world, the task of getting your point across hinges on the words and punctuation you employ. Sloppy or effective word choice can make all the difference between presenting the reader with a vivid or murky picture. Any average writer can do a fair job with description and action. Personally, I think the thing that separates the average writer from the arresting writer is dialog.

Really. I've read a lot of books in the last few weeks. And some of the dialog is pitiful. I wonder if the writers really listen to the way people talk around them. There are a few people who use complete words and sentences all the time, but most? Nope. Most people use a verbal shorthand to communicate.

The vocabulary the character uses is equally important. Now in my writing I might use the word communicate like I did in the paragraph above. But if I was in conversation with the house hunk I would be far more likely to use the word talk. I might describe the sky as azure, but I probably wouldn't turn to my friend and say, "Isn't that a lovely azure sky?" If I did she would look at me as though my marbles were missing.

I love a good snappy dialog. What I don't love is a long-winded information dump via dialog. Especially a fake sounding information dump. You know. The characters are gathered in the library while the chief of police explains how the murderer did it. Ugh.

Equally annoying are the really strange conversations some authors hang on their characters while they're in bed. Verrrrry strange. I've been around a few men in my time. I've never met one who had a lick of sense when he was in the process of getting some. Certainly, I've never met one who had enough presence of mind to have a long-drawn out conversation. And if the woman is able to focus on this long-drawn out conversation then he's doing it wrong!

Last week I swear I read a book where the hero/heroine were having a detailed conversation about decorating the bathroom. While they were in bed. Doing it. No.

People use contractions when they talk. Can't, won't, didn't, she'd, wouldn't... When the writer refuses to use contractions, then they change the character's tone of voice. I'm sorry, but I just don't believe some big biker dude is likely to speak like he graduated from Harvard. He might have. But what's the point? Is that central to his character? Speech patterns matter. If he speaks like a professor, he's going to stand out for sure in a bunch of rough biker men.

Most people do not have organized conversations. You know what I mean. First I'll say something insightful and complete. Okay, now it's your turn to say something insightful and complete. Okay, now it's my turn. Nope it doesn't happen unless the two individuals in question are really, really ticked off and are consequently trying for civility.

Anyway, I think I'll close with a conversation from Traveller's Refuge.

Traveller cleaned up, as quickly as humanly possible, checking himself out in the blurry mirror hung over the dirty rust-stained sink. When the toilet ceased running, he turned off the light-blower switch and leaned against the cold door listening intently.

“You think he’ll show?” The sleepy tenor voice came through with startling clarity.

“Nah, I think he’s probably in Kansas by now.” The deeper growl was more alert but clearly disinterested. “Get your coffee and we’ll go find Angelo and send him home.”

“I wish I knew what the hell this was all about.”

“No, you don’t.” Deep voice spoke with curt authority. “You don’t want to know. You don’t want to see. You weren’t even here, Kevin. Got that?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it. Shit, I just was thinking.”

“Well, don’t think. Go pay for our coffee so we can get out of here.”

“Can’t we take the time to get a sandwich? The restaurant sells those egg and bacon sandwiches on a bagel. I nearly starved yesterday.”

“Fine, fine. Get one. Get two. Just hurry! I’ll wait for you in the van.”

Trav listened to them walk away. Counting to three, he opened the door and slipped out, heading for the rear exit which passed the showers and bunks for the truckers. With a quick look around, he moved into the shadows of the trash bins, ducked into the woods and silently approached Angie.

Angelo turned in his direction and shot him a curious look. “Back so soon?”

“Yeah. You know someone named Kevin?”

“Shit. Yeah, he’s my replacement. You saw him?”

“Nope but I sure heard him. And FYI, he’s got company. I slipped out the back.”

“What the hell is up?” Angie demanded fiercely.

“I think that dear old Free is setting you up for a fall. I’ve got to beat feet, uncle. Thanks for keeping an eye on my stuff.” Trav grabbed his bags and walked further into the woods.



  1. I love snappy banter but I do have a personal habit of saying 'do not' and will not' instead of using contractions. But then, I write as I speak and I do not agonize over it unless our editor writes comments in the margin telling me to pull my head in and use contractions.

  2. Writing dialog the way people speak in real life is OK to an extent. But real life conversation is full of "what"s, "yeah"s, "um"s, and "like"s, and various other useless words. Try reading true real life speech in a story, and you'll get bogged down pretty quickly.

    You will also find a lot of writers doing things like this:

    "Hey, Joe."
    "Hi, Bill."
    "Guess what happened to me today."
    "I ran into Sally."
    "Was she hot?"
    "Oh boy was she!"

    Which is super tedious to read, but oh, so true to life. It would be much more effective dialog if written:

    "Hey, Joe! You'll never guess who I ran into today. Sally! And boy did she look hot!"

    I had a writing teacher once who said that you should never have a line of dialog that is a simple "Yes." or "No." It stops the flow, communicates essentially nothing, and there's almost always something more to be said. Of course there are times to break this rule. But I try to keep it in mind as I write.

    So, yeah, use contractions in dialog, and watch your word choice, but don't try to be hyper-realistic, either.

  3. Hey Elissa, great to see you. And you're right as usual. But so is Anny. Nothing worse than dialogue that is just WRONG.

  4. Hi Elissa! Would love to chat you up off loop for two seconds. (

    I love good dialogue. I love witty responses and quick thinking so an author who can provide that to me is an automatic winner.

  5. I use umm..or hmm...or any variation of these with no qualms. I try to write like people speak. Tend to be careful with heavy accents like a scottish brogue. Don't know if I could them and maybe that's why I've never had a scottish character. Maybe.

    Recently had a conversation with a friend about not showing your "AGE" in dialogue when your h/h are in their 20's or 30's and the author is 60 or so. You don't want your young characters talking like college professors.

    If my character needs to only say YES...that's what they'll say. Nothing more. And a long drawn out conversation druring sex is just dumb. Who does that?