Thursday, November 8, 2007

Points-earning Dialogue

Let’s break down contest elements. Scoresheets are your personal guide to what a particular contest is looking for. Categories give you a general guideline. Scoresheets label specifics.

Are the bulk of points given for dialogue? Characterization? Conflict? When you decide to send your work out, make sure it has a chance of being a good fit first. While contests don’t cost a whole lot of money, cash is cash and using it wisely is, well, just plain smart. Sending your work to the wrong contest is like sending your kid out into the snow without a coat and expecting him to have fun.

Ain’t gonna happen. All you get is a whiny kid, frost-bit hands and a runny nose. First his, then yours.

So assess wisely.

Let’s look at dialogue. I love good, snappy, fun dialogue. I live for incomplete sentences. I enjoy a mix of show and tell, enough for one to balance the other. And I’m a contest judge, so those works will jump out at me, making me smile, keeping me happy. And as the ladies will attest, it is very important to keep me happy.

Chocolate helps. So does a caramel/mocha frappuccino, but I digress.

Back to dialogue:

Camy crossed the room, holding a sheaf of papers guaranteed to garner at least a stern lecture, if not an actual firing. “Here’s the Maxwell file you requested, sir.”

Stud-muffin Boss frowned. “This was supposed to be on my desk this morning.”

Camy nodded, certain her hard work would ease the confrontation. “I know, sir. It was incomplete and I spent all night working on it, but it’s done now.” She was glad she took the time to shower and change. Working all night was hard on a girl’s image.

He glared at the numbers, his jaw tight. “Have you gone over these figures with Tompkins?”

“No, sir. There wasn’t time. I thought you’d want to see them first because...”

His scowl deepened. “Your job was to have this project done, run by Tompkins for pre-approval and on my desk by nine o’clock. Correct?”

Camy’s heart stutter-stepped. Wasn’t he even going to read it after all her lost sleep and extended effort? “Yes.”

“What’s your excuse, Ms. Tang?”

Was now a good time to tell him that his partner was most likely skimming profits from quiet accounts like Maxwell Industries? Maybe not.

Okay, let’s do this scene again, because I’m yawning already and that’s a B-A-D sign. From the top:

Camy strode across the polished walnut floor, the percussion of her heels in time with the tap, tap, tap of the narrow portfolio against her thigh. Stud-Muffin Boss looked up, obviously less than happy. Camy slipped into the chair opposite, crossed her legs, adjusted her skirt and slid the thick folder over to him. “Maxwell.”

His scowl deepened. “Ah, yes, the file that was supposed to be on my desk when I walked in the door at nine.”

Camy counted to five, buffed a nail, and sat back. “I’m going to wager it’s worth the wait.”

Could his countenance grow darker? She wouldn’t have thought so, but was pretty sure it did. Eyeing him, she nodded. Oh, yeah. Definitely darker. The whole thunder-cloud scenario came to mind. Dark. Sinister. Ominous. Very Goth. He stood, rounded the desk and sat on the left-hand corner, frowning. “Punctuality is important in the legal world, Ms. Tang. The law of the land doesn’t care how shiny your nails are or how crisply you iron a ninety-dollar shirt. A judge wants facts and figures, laid out in logical order to aid in his or her assessment of the case before him. Am I making myself clear?”

The vein in his left temple made a haphazard blue line against tanned skin. Camy checked her nails once more, pursed her lips, and nodded. “Perfectly.” She held out her hands. “Do you like this color? Too dark, maybe? Too bronzy? What’s your opinion?”


The vein took an odd jump when his eyebrows hiked up. Right before he drew them together in a tight, foreboding “W”.

Camy held her hands at different angles to the light, studying them. “It’s called Hot Summer Sky, but it almost looks too fall-ish to me. What do you think? Too autumn or just right for mid-August?”

Stud Muffin leaned down, the vein taut, eyes narrow. “Are you aching to get fired? Am I being punked? Will some trumped up, tattooed camera crew jump out at any second, revealing we’re slated for some schlocky cable show? Exactly what do you think it will take to save your job right now, Ms. Tang, because cute skirts, great legs and perfect nails aren’t going to do it. Got anything else in the arsenal?” His breath was warm and coffee scented, kind of sweet. Maybe a latte’ guy. Or caramel macchiato. Yes. She’d bet on the macchiato.

Camy tilted her chin, eased the distance between them, and hoped her mouthwash was still effective. She offered her sweetest smile and tapped the folder with one well-manicured nail in a color she’d decided was really quite perfect for the day. Bold. Sassy. “How about a partner who’s cutting your profits by skimming a generous dollop of income into his back pocket before the account ever makes it into the office?” She pushed her chair back, stood and tapped the file one more time for effect. “Billable hours, executorships. All right there.”

He did a little double take before a light of realization sparked amber flecks in his dark eyes. “Facts? Figures?”

“In your hand.”

He stood, obviously torn between examining her facts and groveling. The facts won, but that was okay. Camy swung about, the flare of her skirt moving against her legs.

Great legs, he’d said. And perfect nails.

“Ms. Tang?”


He held the portfolio aloft. “We’ll talk about this once I’ve had time to examine your findings.”

She bit back a smile of triumph. Not the time or the place. Inclining her head, she gave him a slight nod, but couldn’t totally squelch the hint of amusement in her voice. “I’m looking forward to it, Sir.”

Which would you score higher? If you say the first one, then I appreciate your honesty but I'm probably not going to buy your book.

And that's okay, because I'm obviously not your target audience. (Note that I'm holding myself back here, not mentioning the median age of your target audience. That's real good for me. Obviously the therapy sessions are worth every penny.)

Strong dialogue leads to strong characterization and the plot builds from those combined elements. If there's no fire and water, no flash, no sizzle, then your dialogue is kind of like reading the phone book.

Break down your dialogue and make sure it's the best it can be. Don't fudge. Editing and re-writes are part of the job and you want to present your best work to those judges, agents and editors, right?

Of course, right! (A little Yenta thrown in there... Fiddler on the Roof.... I love Tevye. He's kind of like a Jewish Ivan, Mary's poor, beleagured husband, flamboozled by all those daughters.)

For older writers, paying attention to what the younger generation actually says is helpful in writing today's dialogue. You don't have to be a chick-lit author to have cool-sounding heroines, but it doesn't hurt to chat it up with your kids and grandkids. Watch a little TV aimed at the pre-Geritol set.

Avoid the common pitfalls of everyday dialogue. Make every word count. Utilize your setting to enhance the nuances you want to create.

And above all, have fun!



Tina M. Russo said...

Nice. Very nice.

That was excellent Ms.Logan-Herne.

Missy Tippens said...

Excellent work. I actually thought the first one wasn't too bad. But the second one put it to shame. :)

I'm impressed!

Oh, and I happened upon a judges score sheet yesterday (the editor for a contest I finaled in--she actually commented on a score sheet, a rarity in contests. She told me to work on the dialogue, something I had thought I was pretty good at. The editor said to work on making it less stilted, more natural.

So, now I'm thinking a lot about dialogue, wanting to study it further. And Ruthy had a ready-made lesson for me. Great timing, Ruthy. :)


Ruth Logan Herne said...

Missy, I do what I can...

(She said humbly)

And since you've got a book cover on B&N right now, I bow to the contracted.



Ruth Logan Herne said...

Oh, P.S....

Now, gals, I know that kind of reparte sets a certain mood that isn't applicable in all writing, in all circumstances.

But for example's sake, it was fun.


Ruthy again

Melanie Dickerson said...

Thanks for the dialogue lesson, Ruthy!

Well, I'm not one to hold things inside when I'm excited, so I have to tell you guys, I finaled in a contest! I just found out last night. It's strange, though, because with this contest, they didn't have three or four finalists in each category. In fact, mine was the only Inspirational entry that finaled. And there were no finalists in the romantic suspense category. Anyway, if you want to check it out and give me your wise insight, here's the link:

Beth said...

I love your writing Ruthy. You have me interested in the remainder of the story (one I'm sure you haven't even written, and perhaps don't plan to, either). I want to know what happens next (and what happened prior to that little scene). When do I get to read your latest book? I'm looking forward to it.

Tina M. Russo said...

Wow, Melanie, awesome. Congratulations. This is interesting how they run this contest. Ten finalists from all categories across the board. You can certainly pat yourself on the back. That is quite an achievement. And the list of final judges is equally impressive.

I wish I had entered this contest. And thrilled you finaled.

Mary Connealy said...

Anyone who's reading this who isn't so enchanted by Ruthy's Dialogue to remember the point, check out those contest score sheets BEFORE you enter.
I had a really tough time when I entered Petticoat Ranch in contests at first for a really simple reason. My hero spends the first 40 pages of the book unconscious.
Well, judging the hero...I got a lot of low scores because, although his unconscious self is pivotal because the woman are saving him, how you gonna judge it?
I finally got smart and went in and ... woke him up briefly... a short scene where his eyes flutter open, the woman ask him questions, he's confused and
well, voila, the hero is all the sudden sweet adn charming and I"m getting those 'hero' scores up which helped me start finalling.
So the score sheets become a really good check list for the author about what elements should be front and center in a book.

And Ruthy, I'd really like to read this book. Write the rest of it. NOW!

Mary Connealy said...

You're familiar with Melanie's contest, Tina? I was talking with her about it, trying to make sense of it.
The finalists AREN'T categorized?
I'm already in talks with her about Guest blogging. :)
Swooping vulture-like down on the poor girl.

Patricia W. said...

Congratulations, Melanie!

And, although this was a lesson on dialogue, what stood out for me was the narrative around the dialogue in the 2nd example. Much more complete and picturesque for the reader.

So snappy dialogue is one thing but I think it's the complete package that makes it work so well. And it does work! No plans to write the rest, Ruth? Even if you change the heroine's name so that Camy doesn't sue you for some odd thing?

Janet Dean said...

Excellent work, Ruthy! Love it!

Congratulations on the final, Melanie!

Patricia, I, too, noticed Ruthy's narrative in the second example. And how the heroine's actions brought her to life. More than her polish is sassy. :-)

I've been told countless times it's best to read dialogue aloud, but my voice must get tired or something because I soon find I'm reading silently. Does anyone else struggle with this?

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Gals, you're right, I upped the descriptive level to fit the scene and the dialogue I was using. I see that as "Dolby" dialogue. You know, 'surround-sound' so that you're using all the parts to make a whole, like a Dolby surround sound CD system.

And Melanie, I love what MARARWA did... Did they use percentages? Or score level, maybe?

That way, even if a category only has a handful of entries, the only entries allowed to final must have achieved a score of (i.e.) 85/100 or they don't get to final, even if they make the top three.

Congrats, kid! Very cool.

Beth, good to see you! Well. Kind of see you. Maybe I should say, nice of you to drop in!

And thanks so much for stopping by. We love company here in Seekerville, 'cause we so totally understand what's goin' on out there. What it's like to bang your head against a wall for....

I utterly refuse to say how long.

And Patricia, my pretty friend, you're right. For the dialogue to work as well as it did the setting had to move up a notch or two. Get a better picture of our Camy...

Not OUR Camy, mind you, but the fictitious Camy.


And right now I'm working on two WIP's. One is a three book series set in Wisconsin, the other is a NYC cop story that started as a contest entry and took over my brain.

Way fun, way quick, way cool.

In my humble opinion, of course!


amanda said...

WOW! What a difference from the first version to the second. The second was so rich with detail it leaves the images in my head permanently. I can see her hand gestures and hear the bit of confidence and sass in her voice. I love her so much more in the second writing as a confident, active, thinker of a woman. The first made her seem so fragile and like she was at the whim of whatever situation would befall her. The second was a woman ready to create the situations that best suited herself and use them. Go Chicka!

Lacey said...

First of all, I can attest to the importance of keeping you happy - after all, it is all about you!!!

You really spoke to the significance of knowing ones audience (which transcends into many areas of life) and taking the time to write something that people are actually going to want to read and get involved in. In just a few short lines, you already have me invested and wanting to know what came before and what will come after. That is always important and valued, no matter what you are writing about.

Very nice job.


Pam Hillman said...

Whoo-hoo! Melanie! I won the MARA once with an inspirational historical. First place overall. Great contest! Congratulations on finalling. We're so proud of you.

Pam Hillman said...

Ruthy, those two scenes were awesome. Truly, I didn't see anything majorly wrong with the first one, and couldn't figure out what you were going to do to top it...then WHAM, you did something totally unexpected.

Great job and great example of taking our writing up several more notches.

But knowing Ruthy, I have to ask....which scene did you write first? lol

seth said...

Nice writing Ruth. I have to agree with the other posts that said the first one seemed to get the job done but that the second version made it more real. If the reader has to put effort into the story it just seems like too much work but this writing makes picturing this scene effortless.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Mandy, good to see you stopped back! Welcome, kid!

And I'm so glad you saw it that way, that's what I was going for. I wanted the reader (writer/author/reader/whomever) to see the complete Camy (who will most likely throttle me when she sees this, but that's the fun of sisterhood...) in the second version, a woman unafraid to take charge and still look good, even if it meant staying up all night...

A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do!

And Seth, you're absolutely right. I think a lot of books get set aside because they're either boring or predictable, or you have to work too hard to understand them. Sharp, bright prose was my goal on the second scene.

Nice to have another guy around! Our resident Preacher has been our only male contributor the last week or so.

And Lace, wise people understand the workings of the Superego, girlfriend! :)

It's not really ALL about me, but at least MOSTLY about me...

(Purists: I'm kidding. I'm really a nice person, just somewhat egocentric. But Mary considers it her heaven-sent assignment to keep me humble.

Every day.)


Mary Connealy said...

It's MY JOB to keep you humble?
So what is the exact salary again?
Well, there is the fun of it, I suppose. That's pretty valuable.
You know, insomniac me?? I'm kinda sleepy and its' nine p.m.
That has nothing to do with this blog.
I may go to bed. I hope I don't frighten my husband when I come in.

Julie Lessman said...


Just got home from work, bone-tired and no adrenalin left. Read your post, and it was better than three shots of expresso! Woke me right up and then ticked me off when I realized I couldn't read the rest of the story. Tease!

Whoo-whoo, Melanie--way to go, girl, with the final!!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Jules, I'm glad I hyped you up since I seem to be putting Mare to sleep.

(Shhhh...... We don't want to wake her...)

Way better than caffeine and not a calorie in sight!


It's the 'Ruthy' diet.

Thanks, kiddo.


Missy Tippens said...


I'm so excited for you!! Congratulations!!!

Missy :)

Tina M. Russo said...

Okay, Ruth are you pimping the blog with your family. Not fair. Your family is way too big. Wish I had thought of it first.

Janeto! To tell you the truth I not only read my stuff outloud I act it out. (and keep my blinds drawn). I am an Oda Mae Brown (Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost) when I write.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Tina acts out her scenes????

Pass the popcorn, I want a front-row seat!


Tina, that's awesome. Really. It's part of what makes you as good as you are. Obviously something works, oh contest queen, and if that gives you a feel for the people and the parts, go for it.

But I still wanna see it. Without you knowing, of course. Dratted blinds.

And I thought all blog visitors were created equal????

Endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights????

Being the sweet, open-hearted, open-minded woman I am, I welcome and encourage all visitors to Seekerville, even if they're occasionally related to me.



Melanie Dickerson said...

Going back to work on my WIP's dialogue. Ugh, it DOES read like the phone book!

Thanks for the congrats, everybody. You guys are talented AND sweet. :-)

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Melanie, MOST of us are talented and sweet.

All of us are talented.


E-mail me privately, I'll send you a list.

And work on the dialogue, girlfriend!



Jess said...

Wonderful post, Ruthy. And this is such an entertaining bunch. I'm with Missy- I honestly didn't think the first one was too bad-- thought the heroine was just being professional and didn't want to lose her job. :) And then I read the 2nd one. Sort of like...

And now we have the rest of the story. LOL Recognize that voice?

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Jess, I'm glad it read that way because the first one was okay technically, but it didn't grab you by the throat and force you to skip lunch while you finish the book....

Exactly what I was aiming for. Not a newbie's work, but not quite making the grade, either.

And I'm so glad you come and play with us! We love the 'writers' sandbox' around here, and all are welcome.

And if it helps anyone, better yet.


Camy Tang said...

My goodness, I go out of town for a few days and you guys give me great legs and perfect nails!