Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Say WHAT???

Dialogue. Done well, it advances your plot while revealing more about your characters. Done poorly, it detracts from the story and jeopardizes your credibility as a competent author. The last thing you want is for readers to be thinking . . .

“A guy would never express his feelings like that!”

“Did people really say ‘okay’ in 1820?”

“What’s with all this weird spelling? I feel like I’m deciphering code!”

“Stop with the preaching already and get on with the story!”

So how do you create effective and believable story dialogue that keeps your readers turning the pages? Here are a few dos and don’ts that may help.

First let’s talk about what the characters are saying--
the words between the quotation marks.

DO eavesdrop on real people every chance you get. Listen for cadence, inflection, word choice, and regional idioms. However . . .

DON’T try to recreate dialogue exactly as you hear it in real life. Story dialogue should give the feel of real speech but without all the extraneous stuff we tend to lace our conversations with--er and uh and ya know, etc.

DO plan a conversational goal for each of your characters in each scene. Dialogue can be a great vehicle for ramping up conflict. Make each person’s speech relevant and purposeful.

DON’T bore readers with chatty interchanges that don’t advance the plot.

“How are you doing, Sandra?”
“Hey, Glynna. Um, fine, I guess. You?”
“Oh, just great. Well, really, I could do without the rain, though.”
“Yeah, me, too. Makes my arthritis act up.”

DO flavor your character’s speech with idioms and phrasing that reflect his or her regional or ethnic background, age and education level, and/or line of work.

“Why, Missy, if you aren’t just as sweet as southern iced tea!”

DON’T make your reader decode strange spelling or words full of apostrophes indicating omitted letters in an attempt to recreate a foreign accent or speech impediments.

“I tellin’ ze truth, Pam eez no gonna like zat ve no say nuttin’ 'bout spreadsheets.”

DO give the flavor of a character’s speech with well-chosen words and speech patterns. An occasional foreign word or phrase can add just enough to suggest the character’s ethnic background. Just make sure the meaning is evident in context. (Also note that foreign words are normally italicized.)

“Debby, would you pass the cappuccino, per favore?”
“Certainly, Tina.”

DON’T have characters using slang that is popular today but may well be passe by the time your story comes out in print.

“Oooh, Cara, that outfit is totally rad!”
“Like, groovy and far out, Camy!”

DON’T let your characters become windbags (unless of course that’s part of the characterization). Rambling talk that has nothing to do with moving your characters closer to or farther from their goals will only bog down your story.

Summing up this section, let me quote Jack Bickham from his book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes: “Simplicity . . . directness . . . goal orientation . . . brevity. These are the hallmarks of modern story dialogue. Nothing else will suffice.”

Now let’s talk about what’s outside the quotation marks--
the dialogue tags that identify who’s speaking.

DON’T get fancy with synonyms for “said.” Keep speaker attributions like iterated, queried, inquired, uttered, suggested, etc., to a minimum. This is one time the thesaurus is not your friend. The word said is basically invisible. The reader will skim right over it and stay caught up in the story.

DO use “said” verbs that are actually doable. Said. Asked. Cried. Whispered. Words that actually refer to a verbal utterance. You can also occasionally use appropriate “said” verbs to imply tone of voice.

“Get to the point,” Ruthy said.
“I’m trying,” Myra whined.

DON’T use “said” verbs that are physically impossible. You can’t nod, wink, smile, shrug, or beam a line of dialogue. Dialogue also cannot be hissed if the words have no “s” sounds.

DO use beats rather than speaker attributions whenever possible. Beats, according to Browne & King in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print, “are the bits of action interspersed through a scene . . . the literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as ‘stage business.’” In the examples below, notice how beats give the writing a stronger and more immediate feel.

Speaker attribution: “I wish you’d play fair,” Mary said with a huff.
Beat: “I wish you’d play fair.” Mary huffed and threw down her tennis racquet.

Speaker attribution: “Are you ready to go yet?” Janet asked as she reached for her keys.
Beat: Janet reached for her keys. “Are you ready to go yet?”

DON’T have conversations taking place in empty space. Your readers need a context in which to envision the characters. They also need regular reminders about which character is speaking--even more important when three or more characters are interacting.

DO place the characters in an appropriate setting so the reader can picture the scene.

Audra sank into a deck chair and inhaled the crisp ocean air. “This is heavenly!”

DON’T rely on words like exclaimed or shouted, or on adverbs like angrily, tiredly, or sadly to indicate how a line of dialogue is delivered.

DO let the character’s mood come through in the dialogue itself, and trust your readers’ intelligence. Usually the only time you need a qualifying tag is when the tone of voice suggests the total opposite of the words spoken.

“A five-star review?” Cheryl said. “Cara, that’s stupendous!”
“Yes, I’m just thrilled,” Cara replied flatly. “Did you notice they misspelled my name?

DO start a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes, and keep any related character action in the same paragraph.

Remember, well-written dialogue may well be the writer’s most effective tool for drawing readers into the story and deepening their bond with the characters. To read what other Seekers have posted on the subject, click here.

What are your dialogue questions or concerns?
Pet peeves? Punctuation problems?
The Seekers are here to help!


Leave a comment on today's post for a chance to receive winner's choice of one of Myra's books!

One Imperfect Christmas
Autumn Rains

Romance by the Book


Tina Russo Radcliffe said...

I love a good character and dialogue driven story. It keeps me in the story and I hate to put the book down.

Good morning Seekerville.

Dunkin' Donuts and Dunkin' Donuts Coffee are ready to go.

Have a great Tuesday.

Lisa Jordan said...

When I've judged contests, dialogue seems to be one of the weakest areas of writing. This is a great post. I'll keep it in mind for future suggestions for further reading.

I thought about my pet peeves and wondered if maybe the writer doesn't understand how to write strong dialogue. I've seen two areas that stand out to me when reading others' work: male dialogue that sounds like it's been written by a female--I live with three men and have a feel for how they speak, and the lack of action beats and the writer's reliance on adverb dialogue tags to show character emotion.

lisajordanbooks at yahoo dot com

Janet Dean said...

Good morning Seekerville! I can't believe I'm first! I've got the coffee made and the water hot for our tea drinkers.

Myra, wonderful post! You've nailed how to write dialogue and tags that ring true and keep readers turning the pages. And you used all the Seekers to do it. :-) I counted. LOL

Of all the important things you said, the one that jumped out at me was to give the POV character a conversational goal.

I know the POV character should have a goal for every scene and he either gets the goal or doesn't, but either way things get worse and lead to actions for the next scene. Using dialogue to get that goal and forward the plot is vital. Thanks for the reminder.


Janet Dean said...

Not first after all. That's what I get for stopping to pour and eat my cereal. If I'd known you were bringing Dunkin' Donuts, Tina, I'd have waited.


Sandra Leesmith said...

Myra, Loved this post. So relevant. And how fun to use the Seekers.

Thanks for the coffee and donuts Tina. Yum. Love that Dunkin Donuts Coffee. Well I love about any coffee really. LOL

KC Frantzen said...

Why do y'all PERSIST in having exactly what I need?

It's amazing. Y'all are a gift. Truly.

Q: Isn't cappuccino a foreign word? :)

Q: action & dialog of the same character in same paragraph. How do you denote a bit of time passing while the character digests a thought and then has an action. Is it then appropriate to have that in the next paragraph as long as no character change is indicated? What are other ways to do this?

Again - GREAT topic. I'm struggling some with these very issues right now. (But I'm not afraid - ha!)

Thank you all! Thanks for the goodies this morning too. I'm already grazing.

ksf895 at citlink dot net

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Ah, Dunkin!!!! Yes. And Coffee...

Love you Russo Radcliffe.


This is your best post ever. EVER. Did I say ever???

Oh, yes.

And I burst out laughing at the "Get on with it," Ruthy said.

"I'm trying," Myra whined....

Oh my stars, girlfriend, you are waaaaaay stronger than you give yourself credit for. I'm still laughing now.

Great examples. Totally wonderful, spot-on.

And dialogue is so stinkin' important to either reflect or deflect the mood of the scene. (notice those impressive writing words? Shows I'm avidly studying the craft, don't it????)

I love good, crisp dialogue. I love eliminating as many speech tags as I can. I love eliminating exclamation points except in the case of small children, annoying adults and people with mental challenges because they talk in exclamation point-speak so often.

If real people did that, I'd punch 'em.

But that's just me. ;)

Myra, I'm printing this one out and hanging it. Love it. Love it. Love it.


KC Frantzen said...

Professor Myra, one more question please.

One of my important secondary characters in May on the Way is a Venezuelan street dog. She does have a thick accent. How do you suggest depicting her speech?

(And to the previous question about change of paragraph, the line that starts "under her breath" - it almost seems that should be in a new paragraph to give the sense of a wee bit of time passing.)

Example of a short scene with Sassy and April:

"Ah respect your point of view Ah-breel. We weel try a test or three. Our familias' protection may ooltimately depend upon the results tomorrow. But for now, we must go."

"Tests or no tests, I still do not like it. I do not like it in any manner, shape or form."

Sassy looked hard at April.

April bowed her head a smidgeon. I cannot believe I am going to say this. "You are correct. If your Master… thinks May… might… be an asset… then… I will abide by her wishes… regardless of our results." Under her breath, April continued, "Though I do not see what good will come of it."

As her eyes flashed, Sassy rumbled , "Ees there sometheeng else you weesh to share Ah-breel?"

"No Sassy."

"Very well."

Sherri M said...

Thank you! Awesome advice!!!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

KC, muster up some guts and post an example.

Be brave. You survived ME!!!!


Nothing is worse than that, Sugar Plum.


Julie Lessman said...

Wow, Myra, what a great (and necessary!) post! You are sooo right about the wrong dialogue jeopardizing the credibility of a story. When I read dialogue that is too stilted or doesn't ring true, I stop right where I am and say, "are you kidding me?"

Dialogue is crucial, and so is this post today for me and everyone else because you nailed all points concerned. I especially don't like overuse of accents because they are 1.) really hard to do correctly (I can't, so I avoid them as much as possible) and 2.) After a while, they're annoying to the reader.

Another pet peeve of mine that I see is the word "said" being transposed. Instead of "Ruthy said," the author phrases it as "said Ruthy." I suppose this is passable in a historical piece, but I've actually seen it in contemporary pieces and it bothers me every time. That could be because I'm a creature of habit and habit makes me comfortable, so that when I see something out of my habit or norm, I feel uncomfortable, which is the last thing I want to do to a reader unless the scene is supposed to be uncomfortable. But then, that's just me ... might be different for others.

Great post, Myra!


Courtney said...

I'm reading a book now, and I am really enjoying it...except for the fact that the writer uses "said" too much! Even when it is clear who is speaking! That is a pet peeve of mine, but I'll still finish the book because of the great story.

Janet Dean said...

KC, introspection in small doses and character actions are terrific ways to show the character's reactions to the dialogue. I love crawling inside a character's head. Can it be overdone? Yep. I usually put introspection in a separate paragraph though tidbits of a character's thoughts can be used prior to dialogue, along with physical reactions and actions.

Fun topic!

Courtney said...

Also, like you said, I notice when male dialogue does NOT sound like a guy. It annoys me.


KC Frantzen said...

Done Master Ruthy!

Sugar Plum? "Oh my STARS!" Hey, does this mean I get fairy wings too? I adore fairy wings!!

(You're not fooling anyone. You are one excellent critter!)

Kav said...

Wow, lots to think about this morning. I loved your examples! :-) They show just how much of an impact dialogue can make on a book.

"A Soldier's Devotion" by Cheryl Wyatt is a great example of how to use dialogue to define a character. The contrast between Vince and Val is stunning and after just a few pages of dialogue I felt like I knew them. I really liked the way Cheryl developed Vince's character through dialogue. At the beginning of the book he speaks in terse, single word sentences which clearly show that he is an angry and bitter man. As he grows closer to God...and to Val...his heart softens and his new attitude is reflected in the way he speaks. That strategy really made an impact on me.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cheryl, Kav obviously WANTS SOMETHING....

Sheesh, talk about obvious. ;)

Kav, you're right, that subtle change isn't something a lot of readers would point at, but it drives the connection home subtly. Did I spell that right? It looks weird.

No, I checked, it's right, but it still looks weird.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

KC, good girl!!!!

I would lose the ellipses in April's response. Say that she's responding slowly, or dragging her speech, but lose the ellipses because they're distracting.

I love the accent.

And the dog adventures.

And your crazy brain.

I would leave 'under her breath' right where it is. It's fine there, and leads into her 'aside'...

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Before I jump back to job, I had a friend bring me back a book I loaned her from one of my favorite writers....

A new book.

She said the overuse of multiple accents turned her right off and she gave up about six chapters in. Said she was annoyed, that digging through multiple accents didn't seem real unless it was set in NYC and it seemed kind of set up to her. Unreal.

Something to think about.

Pepper Basham said...

Wonderful post, Myra. Oh man, I love writing dialogue. Whether I'm good at it or not...well, that's a different story.
Your tips were great.
I think it's a fine line between being preachy and having moments of Christian-specific dialogue - if that makes any sense.
I've read a few contest entrants that had long episodes of very preachy dialogue and it really slowed the story down.
(Pepper needs Romance By the Book)

As Christians, we WANT to display Christ and the Gospel in our writing, but you're right - we can weave it into the dialogue, internal monologues, and actions/reactions of the characters in the same (if not even more) powerful way as 'preaching'.

I'm grabbing a donut and hoping, hoping, hoping for a win (Romance By the Book)

Not that I'm being pushy or anything (hand raised and waving), but I hear that your novel Romance By the Book is a really good one, Myra :-)

Pepper Basham said...

Ooops, email address for...um...Romance By the Book

Myra Johnson said...

Gooooood morning, Seekerville!!! Thanks for bringing the donuts & coffee, Tina. You always seem to be up and at 'em WAAAAY earlier than I am.

And I'll take a cup of that tea, Janet. That's my usual morning beverage of choice.

Some great points and questions already this morning. Let me read a few more comments and get back to you.

Myra Johnson said...

Lisa & Julie, I completely agree. It really puts me off to read dialogue that I just can't believe that character would say.

And I get very tired of seeing "said" over and over, too. That's a strong argument for skipping the attribution and just writing an action beat. Let me SEE the character in action.

Myra Johnson said...

KC, I think "cappuccino" is one of those foreign words that now is completely Americanized. So, no, I don't think it would be italicized.

In your "under her breath" example, yes, I think it would be just fine to make that the start of a new paragraph to indicate a shift in direction or timing.

What I was referring to in my post is keeping the character's speech in the same paragraph as the directly related character action.

As for character accents, best to keep the dialectic spelling to a minimum. You can suggest a foreign accent with word choice, phrasing, etc. Or even mention it briefly in a dialogue tag such as, "His rich Irish brogue brought visions of the Emerald Isle."

And I have to agree with Ruthy about the ellipses. Those can be intrusive and get tiring to the reader as well.

Missy Tippens said...

Great post, Myra!

My pet peeve is when the characters say each other's names too often. Drive me bonkers! I started eliminating them in my head as I'm reading, as if it's not there. :)

Lindsey said...

I love it when I read a book and cannot put it down. But if I start it and there is not much dialogue I don't finish it most of the time, and it is a huge pet peeve for me not to finish a book.:)
Please add me to win one Myra's book's I would love the chance!

lynnrush said...

Great post. Helpful examples. :-)

Anonymous said...

I would love to win one of Myra's books....please enter me. Thanks!!!

Mary Connealy said...

I often when I'm doing a first draft of a scene, just to tennis ball dialogue.
NO tags at all.

That's to get the story down on paper (well CYBER paper).
then I come back and tag lines.
Then I come back and put character and movement and setting in to the dialogue.

For some reason DIALOGUE is story to me. I'm pretty sure that's not right.

But it's the way I plow through a scene on a first draft.

Great blog

Mary Connealy said...

And a real pet peeve of mine is over done dialect/accent.

I particularly hate over done Scottish accents. Do nae fast yerself.

Stop it.

And when I want a cowboy voice I try to just throw in something every so often. Drop a G . How's it goin'.

Use cowboy language.

I reckon you're right, Ma'am.

Instead of I reckon yer right...I just don't overdo that.
I think it's hard to read. It pulls the reader (or at least me) out of a story.

Casey said...

I really have no questions, that was great. Clear, concise and oh so great to know as I go hit the new story. :)

Thanks for posting!!


Keli Gwyn said...

Wonderful tips, Myra.

I'm with Julie. Inverted speaker attributions stop me. I didn't have a good reason to give until I read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King a few years back. When they substituted a pronoun for the name and pointed out that "said he" is out of favor these days, I knew why it didn't work for me. That construction sounds odd.

Overuse of names instead of pronouns in dialogue (and elsewhere) can also pull me out of a story, as you said.

One thing that helps me with dialogue is to read it out loud or have my computer read it to me. If it's stilted, long-winded, awkward, etc. I'm more inclined to notice when the words are spoken than when I read them.

Another way I study dialogue is to turn on the subtitles when I watch a movie. I'm a visual person, so seeing the words on the screen as I hear them spoken makes them more noticeable. Since screen writers rely heavily on dialogue, I learn from them. They have to make their sentences brief and each word carry its weight.

Myra Johnson said...

Missy! You hit on one of my bad habits! I tend to have characters speak each other's names in dialogue and am trying to cut back to only when it seems really natural, or else necessary to identify to whom they're speaking.

Myra Johnson said...

Mary, have you ever considered screenwriting?

Keli makes an interesting suggestion about "reading" movie dialogue to see how they make each line relevant and effective.

Then as writers, we have to fill in the details of setting the scene, describing the character's internal reactions, etc.

Which is what Mary said about going back and layering in the action and description.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Dunkin Donuts! Yum...

Great dialogue post too, Myra.

Hello Seekerville!!!


Merry said...

I'm reading a wonderful book right now but it does use quite a few foreign words. I love how it helps define the character but there have been a few times I wanted to stop, run to my computer and Google a phrase!

Tina Pinson said...

Bummer, I how come I can't do that when I like itsss?" Tina hissed.

I would love to have those Gilmore Girl, NCIS type dialogue interchanges, that are full of wit and snappy repartee. Well ... when necessary. Cause I think if you get too much of that you can lose a reader too. what works on the tele doesn't always translate for a full book. IMHO. I do get some good dialogue scenes.

I've been been working to make my characters less long winded. But every so often they are allowed a soap box. I know I need one sometimes.

It's only fair.

One of my pet peeves in dialogue is when the writer goes on and on between the two characters in a ping pong effect for along time without a tag break or something.

I realize some people like this, but after a while it drives me buggy. Cause if it goes on for too long I forget who's Ping and who's Pong.

I do like the use of some brogue so to speak. I have a page in a book. But that's pretty much it, and it is done in New York.

I'm thinking I'm saved from the rule right?

working on the dialogue is not so strange, Mare. I do it frequently. Adding the tags and movement after the fact.

I do a lot of things after the fact.

I have come to realize that editting after publishing is not a good idea though.

I'm smart that way.

Tina Pinson said...

OOPS, I forgot to leave my email for entrance into today's drawing.

So I shall leave henceforth.


I shall look forward to hearing from the commenter with word as to whether or not I have won the contest before me.

The stakes look to be unsurmountable but I am crossing my fingers and hoping of the best.

Short, succinct, snappy.

That's me to a T.

Vince said...

Hi Myra:

Great post. Dialogue looks easy on paper and therein lies the rub.

Dialogue holds many pitfalls. Especially in historical fiction.

I just read a WWII romance where the writer made a big deal of the hero calling the heroine MS. That term came into use in the late sixties. She also said a character had a mind like a ‘tape recorded’. Most people at the time would have never heard of a tape recorded. She also used some contemporary slang phrases that would not have been used back then.

On Foreign Accents

I have found a good way to convey a foreign accent is in the use of foreign word order. “You like the lad.. now do you?” (Irish) “It is a room very big.” (French or Italian – adjective after the noun).

Pet Peeves:

1) Too much dialogue in new writers’ works. It’s like eating a meal with only sweets. This seems most common in eBook only published novels. Very common.

2) Descriptions of characters conveyed only in dialogue and then done only once. I want to be told about the hero’s and heroine’s physical attributes more than once. Remind me. The story is not a test! I’m not hanging on every word an author writes. Please!

3) I really dislike dialogue that ends one scene and begins another scene -- with different characters doing the speaking. This is one of the best ways I know to alienate a reader –that is, remind her that she is reading a novel.

4) I don’t like pronouns used when there are three characters in play. “You are going to have to deal with her mother.” When ‘her’ could be two different women. This is the opposite of using names too often.

5) I don’t like dialogue that can have two or three meanings and the context does not make it clear which is meant. “You can’t eat too much of that caviar”. Why? Will it make me sick or is it so good you can’t get sick no matter how much you eat?” I dislike having to reread passages to figure out what they mean. I know they make perfect sense to the author but I’m not the author.

Idea for Myra’s Spreadsheet

I’m not sure whether you do this or not but when you do a character profile, do you list a set of speech phrases and unique terms that you expect the character to use during the book? This would be handy to have in the heat of a creative writing burst.

BTW: I have all your books so can I save today’s chance to win for two chances when your next book comes out? : )


Myra Johnson said...

Merry said, "there have been a few times I wanted to stop, run to my computer and Google a phrase!"

I am so with you on that one! The meaning of foreign language in a book should be made clear either in context or with a short translation. I feel the same way about movies or TV shows where a character speaks another language and there are no subtitles.

Myra Johnson said...

Tina P, I agree. Ping-pong dialogue is almost the same as dialogue in a vacuum. It gives no sense of setting, characters' inner thoughts and reactions, etc.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Okay, this is one time I wished I hadn't surfed over to Seekerville.

There I was, writing my Thursday Prairie Chick post on Dialogue and I wanted to do some research on dialogue tags. While I was waiting for a website to load, I brought up Seekerville for my daily dose of intelligence and bang, what blares out at me but a post on dialogue. This wasn't exactly the research I was looking for. *sigh

Since my post is half done, though, I'll limp along in the hopes I'll have something new to add. One thing is for sure... I'll have a link to this post.

Thanks for the cuppa. No, I won't take any goodies as I'm still losing weight and won't let y'all tempt me. :)

Myra Johnson said...

Vince, you are too funny! I will have to check the Seekerville book giveaway bylaws to see if your request can be honored.

You are so right about foreign accents. The easiest way to do it is with word choice and arrangement.

So far, I haven't included a spreadsheet line for noting unique words and phrases my characters might use, but that certainly is a good idea. For anyone using my Novel Planning Workbook, it would be simple to add a row to the character chart spreadsheet.

Myra Johnson said...

Great minds think alike, huh, Anita Mae! There's a lot I didn't cover on the subject of dialogue, and a lot of it bears repeating anyway, so no worries!

And since it's lunchtime here in CDT, I've just set out some fresh spinach salad with bacon bits, mandarin oranges, and slivered almonds. There's also some wholegrain rolls from Panera Bread, and a pitcher of Panera's iced green tea. Enjoy!

runner10 said...

Very informative post.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Myra agreed with me....


She agreed with me....

in print....

admitted it...

Hey, what are all these ellipses doing here?????


Good job, Myrakins!!!

K said...

Thank you so much for this post! I learned a lot from it! :)

God bless!

Eva Maria Hamilton said...

It seems that every time I write a comment on Seekerville I am telling the Seekers how great their posts are - well nothing has changed :)

Great post - thanks - I'll need to print this for when I edit my ms.

EvaMariaHamilton at gmail dot com

Myra Johnson said...

Ruthy. Of course I agree with you. But only when you're right. I am stubborn that way.

K and Eva Maria, glad Seekerville can be of help! Stop by anytime!

Myra Johnson said...

And "runner10." Are you a marathoner or what? I "run" on Wii Fit. It tells me I am an "excellent runner."

It lies.

Thanks for visiting!

Julie Hilton Steele said...

Lately the word "stuff" has been popping up in a lot of the historicals I read. It is such a tricky thing to not go back into our own time, way of communicating, but it is still amazing that these sorts of word mistakes make it past editors.

More power to all writers out there! It is hard work.

Myra Johnson said...

That bugs me, too, Julie. One of my favorite shows lately is Merlin. I know a lot of it is supposed to be funny and not meant to be taken as historically accurate, but it does grate on me when Arthur and Merlin and others use modern slang.

Pepper Basham said...

You like Merlin too?

okay - all this talk about accents is making me a bit nervous. I have one book that's a modernization of My Fair Lady (Ruthy's gotten her hands on teh first chapter)

I need to create a hero who needs some pretty intense speech therapy for his 'accent reduction'. Is my goal to keep the story moving, not detracting from the scene - even though I WANT to draw attention to his speech?

Myra Johnson said...

Wow, interesting dilemma, Pepper! I think the key is to include just enough "altered speech" to give his dialogue the flavor you're going for, but not so much that readers feel like they're deciphering code.

Maybe if you give us some examples, we can offer some feedback on how it's working.

Pepper Basham said...

Okay, Myra
I'm going to piece a few bits of dialogue together, so if it starts skipping pieces- that's why.

Correct anything else in there too, if ya want :-)

He stepped further into the room, all 200 pounds of him, and took her extended hand. His skin was rough, but not his touch. His hand wrapped around hers like his presence. Big. Powerful. Safe.

She drew in a shallow breath and looked up from their clasped hands. His eyes fastened on hers, dark chocolate brown and intense, like he could see all the way through to her childhood memories.

She looked away. She didn’t like intruders.

“Name’s Reece Mitchell. Nice ta meetcha, Ms…um…Dr. Roseland.”

The strange, safe feeling dissipated once he opened his mouth. The poor man could mutilate more vowels in a single word than all the Beverly Hillbillies combined.

Those coffee-colored eyes released their hold on her thoughts and scanned the room. “I didn’t mean no bother. Shucks, you ain’t even had time to unpack yer thangs yet. When Mama told me you’d got here already, I didn’t figer you’d just got here.”

Adelina squeezed his hand to keep him from retreating. Desperate times…. If numbers counted toward her promotion, then she needed to start right now with making a good impression.

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m makin’ a tangled mess of this, ain’t no mistake.” He shook his head and the black hair loosened from his hat mold all together, dripping over his ears and forehead in a dark mass of waves. “Mama recommended I come see ya ‘bout helpin’ me tawk right, or at least a mite bit better ‘n’ what I got now.” He cleared his throat and studied the tip of one boot. “I got an interview with a company up in Chicago come the end of November and she’s thanks they ain’t gonna know what I’m sayin, so I might need some help.”
Just a bit.

Vince said...

Hi Myra:

It’s a guy thing. It’s like trading a current draft choice for a future choice. My 'team' does not have any needs at this time. : )

I just had an NLP idea which might have potential. Give characters a primary learning modality and reflect that in their speech. For example:

Visual: “I see what you mean”. “Looks good to me.” “I get the picture”.

Audio: “I hear what you’re saying”. “Sounds good to me.” “It’s music to my ears.” “It’s as clear as a bell.”

Kinesthetic: “I got a grip on it.” “Hold your horses.” “I just can’t get any traction with this idea.” “Don’t give me any more friction.”

While a reader may not consciously pick up on this, as they don’t do in real life, (salesmen are trained to) it might still add a level of verisimilitude to your dialogue and characterizations that would be hard to obtain in any other way.

Consider this: Do all your characters speak with your preferred learning modality?

Also, there are tricks.

M. C. Beaton (Marion Chesney) has a set of spinster twins who live together and one of them always repeats the last thing she says. “We are going to the church social this Sunday afternoon, this Sunday afternoon.” She has done this in over 21 Hamish Macbeth Series books and it works for me each time. M.C. owns this idea. (Such ideas I think are best reserved for minor characters). However, can you think of any tricks that are just right for one of your characters?


Walt M said...

I've had the discussion (argument/debate/etc.) with a few people before. And since I write about a culture (Japan) that many English-speaking people used to regard as a legend, I find myself often using words that didn't appear in the English language until long after the time period of my writing. And, if I use the word that would have been used in the 16th century English-speaking society, then my book no longer sounds Japanese.

Loved One Imperfect Christmas. My e-mail address is

Myra Johnson said...

Pepper, in my opinion, what you've written isn't at all difficult to read. Not sure you actually need to spell "talk" as "tawk," but that's a small thing. What works as well as anything to give the impression of his problems speaking are the words like "ain't," "ya," and "yer," and also dropping the occasional g.

Anyone else have suggestions for Pepper?

Myra Johnson said...

Vince, you're so right! I've noticed that, too--how we use phrases like the ones you mentioned that relate directly to what kind of learners we are--visual, audio, or kinesthetic. Good suggestion that we try not to always use our own learning style in our characterizations.

Myra Johnson said...

Walt, I think you have a special situation in your writing. Sometimes you have to balance clarity with authenticity.

So are both your settings and your characters Japanese? Obviously you can't write the book in Japanese, so you have to use English words that convey the feel of the time frame, characters, and setting.

Walt M said...


Settings and characters are all Japanese. The only Europeans in Japan at the time of my book are all from Portugal and are either sailors or Jesuit priests. Given that I need to avoid specific denominational references, I leave the priests out of it.

Myra Johnson said...

Oooh, sounds like Shogun! I loved both the book and TV series!

Pepper Basham said...

Oh Thanks, Myra.
I don't want people to be drawn out of the story, unless they're laughing so hard they can't keep reading.
That's a great reason! :-)

KC Frantzen said...


I think figger is better than figer... which looks as if it would be sounded feye-grrr... instead of fig-ger. Maybe...

(those... were... for... Ruthy...)


On ideas for speech, April never uses contractions. One of my younger readers (15 yrs old) complimented April's "formal" speech!

Vince - that's a great idea on the spreadsheet.

Ok - what workbook? I missed this most obviously... ('nuff already)

I'm trying to determine a method to knock out Book 2 (though I'm still pre-published). Someone mentioned the "Snowflake method" so I've looked at his ideas and liked them. He has some software for not too much $$. If it assists me in writing #2 in a year instead of 3+, that would be well worth it.

Vince said...

Hi Walt:

For a number of years I read all I could about Japan. I was fascinated by their history and concept of honor and duty. I saw all the Japanese movies I could find. (I still see Madame Butterfly every time I can.) When in Europe I always offered to take Japanese tourists group pictures. I would just walk over to them and ask. I was never refused in all these years. You should have seen the smiles. : )

I would love to read your book. I hope it is part of a series so there will be more than just one. Does it take place in 1550? I like the 1550 to 1590 time period. It is so full of energy. I think of it like the US from 1875 to 1898.

My limited experience is that the Japanese speak in a very polite manner. Even in English, I would think that their dialogue would still sound very Japanese. Do you find this to be the case?


Pepper Basham said...

Thanks, KC.
Figger, is a lot better than figure :-)

Myra Johnson said...

KC, I think the workbook in question is my Novel Planning Excel spreadsheet, which is available for download on my Web site here.

Cindy W. said...

I just love coming to Seekerville for a visit. There is always great advice and food. Oh my...love food without calories!

Good dialogue really sells a scene for me. But I do have one little pet peeve. When the diagolue is followed with, "he said" or "she said". Sometimes it's relevent but most times it bothers me.

Hope you all have a blessed day here in Seekerville.

Blessing to you all!

Cindy W.


Audra Harders said...

Oh, chiming in so late to the party, Myra. But glad I did. You made me laugh so hard with your glimpse into the reality of writing dialogue.

You nailed it, Sweets. Great topic. Great examples.

I guess that means you're great all around : )

Walt M said...

Myra and Vince, my books take place about a decade prior to Shogun. I'm putting together a trilogy that takes place from 1587 -1591. However, and I speak from having recently read Shogun, my books are more familiar in speech, because they deal with family and family issues. I once had a judge tell me that my language didn't seem formal enough for Japan. My internal response was that the family of a butcher speaks differently compared to the family of a king.

Project Journal said...

Though I didn't get to it until today (so busy last night!), your post was well worth the wait!! Fantastic examples *wink* They totally make sense, though I don't right. I know that this would be such a useful post if I WAS a writer! Lol....

I can totally relate about the rain making your arthritis act up! Lol....not sure if that was true or strictly an example.....hmmmmm....

Tina, you're my hero this morningish!! YAY! DD is here....yum! For a change, you know?

America runs on Dunkin!
Talk to you later

rbooth43 said...

"Say What???" has given me pointers on how a dialogue driven story should be done. Great advice.