Don’t Let Your Dialogue Stray From Your Characters

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Our first-page submission today is an opportunity to discuss one of the more common errors I see in beginning fiction. We’ll talk about it on the flip side.

JOE’S STORY

Chapter One

On a sunny October morning, Attorney Joe Morales parked his Lexus, carried his brown leather briefcase past a sweetgum tree sporting red, yellow, and orange leaves, and headed to his Dallas office. Inside the red brick building, he walked across the pink and gray granite floor, caught a whiff of the scents from a tasteful arrangement of marigolds and chrysanthemums on the counter, and waved to the clerk behind it. The smell of coffee wafted from the little restaurant down the hall.

Moving here to help his mom with his ailing father had its good points. Something interesting was always going on in Dallas. The energy-sapping summer heat didn’t last as long as it did in San Antonio.

His phone rang. Satisfied all the arrangements had been made for the deposition this morning, he answered. “Hello.”

“Joe Morales, this is Cash Carter, your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.”

“I know who you are.” His face and voice were all over billboards and TV ads. What did the guy want now? He’d certainly paid for several erroneous ads against Joe and kept him busy denying them.

“We need to meet to talk about the issues,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“Why? I have discussed them with voters in several town meetings.”

“Actually, I believe the main issue is your running for office.”

Man, the guy had nerve. “Why? I gathered over 5,000 signatures and paid the $750 filing fee.”

“You have no legislative experience, and you haven’t lived in the county much longer than the required one year. As a candidate for the more popular party, I have an excellent chance of winning, but you running against me is an embarrassment. You’re a pitiful excuse for a candidate. You should withdraw so you won’t suffer an ignominious defeat.”

Joe laughed. “I can’t believe you have the gall to suggest that. You must be scared you’ll be the one to suffer defeat at the polls. I intend to run and make things better for my future constituents, many of whom are Hispanic like me, so if you have nothing better to say, I’m going to hang up.”

“I suggest you rethink your position.” His opponent’s voice was now disturbingly quiet, but Joe heard every word. He frowned, searching for a good reply, then heard Cash say, “Things might get ugly. Goodbye.”

# # #

JSB: Since this scene is mostly dialogue, I’m going to concentrate on that aspect. But let me make a couple of comments about the first two paragraphs.

The opening graph is overloaded with description. There’s too much of it, so instead of creating a vivid picture it just all blends together. Do we need to know the briefcase is brown, or the floor pink and gray? I like that the author employs the underused sense of smell, but there are two smells here and they cancel each other out. Choose one. The coffee smell, probably, because it’s in line with the character at this moment. Please see my post on describing a setting.

The second paragraph is backstory/exposition. I’m not opposed to bits of backstory in opening pages, and for practice’s sake I advise beginners to stick to three sentences of backstory in the first ten pages, all together or spaced out. This one has all three together. But they occur too early in my view, and do nothing to get me interested in the character. The first line is a too overt in trying to get us to like Joe. The second line is there only to tell us we’re in Dallas. The third only to tell us where Joe had come from.

All that information can wait. Act first, explain later. Let’s get Joe right into the phone call, and take a look at the dialogue.

First off, an attorney in a fancy office is not going to just pick up the phone and say, “Hello.” He will either be alerted to the call by a receptionist, or in some cases may take a direct call, but then would answer by saying his name.

“Joe Morales, this is Cash Carter, your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.”

“I know who you are.” 

One of the “speed bumps” I see often in beginning fiction is dialogue that does not sound natural because the author is using it to feed information to the reader. Most of the time it manifests itself by having characters tell each other things they already both know.

And that’s what’s happened here.

Cash Carter and Joe Morales know each other well. They’re political opponents and Joe’s been the subject of many Cash Carter ads already. So there is no reason for Cash to explain that he is “your opponent in the race for representative for the 104th District in Dallas County.” Joe knows that! And Cash knows Joe knows! The author is feeding us, the readers, the information, thinking we need to know it right now. We don’t. It can come in later and in a much more natural way.

“We need to meet to talk about the issues,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“Why? I have discussed them with voters in several town meetings.”

“Actually, I believe the main issue is your running for office.”

Good dialogue is compressed (unless there’s a reason for the character to be prolix). Three ways to do that are to eliminate fluff, cut words, and use contractions.

I define fluff as a needless word or two at the beginning of a sentence. Here, Why and Actually don’t do anything for us. See how much crisper this dialogue is without the fluff, with a couple of words dropped, and with contractions:

“We need talk about an issue,” Cash said in his booming voice.

“I’ve discussed the issues at the town meetings.”

“The issue is you running for office, sport.”

I added sport as an example of a simple way to add tension, another mark of excellent dialogue.

Man, the guy had nerve. “Why? I gathered over 5,000 signatures and paid the $750 filing fee.”

Again, Why is unneeded fluff. And once more the line smacks of exposition. Carter would know all this, and why would Joe bother to cite the filing fee?

Also, as much as possible, let the dialogue do the work of revealing the characters’ feelings. The line Man, the guy had nerve wouldn’t be needed if you had Joe say something like, “You gotta be kidding.”

“You have no legislative experience, and you haven’t lived in the county much longer than the required one year. As a candidate for the more popular party, I have an excellent chance of winning, but you running against me is an embarrassment. You’re a pitiful excuse for a candidate. You should withdraw so you won’t suffer an ignominious defeat.”

This doesn’t sound real to me. Would Cash really say “ the required one year” (something they both know!) or “the more popular party” or “I have an excellent chance” or “ignominious defeat”? If he’s trying to scare off Joe, wouldn’t he use more colloquial and colorful language?

Here’s a dialogue tip: Read it out loud, with feeling (like an actor). The sound will smack you in a whole new way.

“I can’t believe you have the gall to suggest that. You must be scared you’ll be the one to suffer defeat at the polls. I intend to run and make things better for my future constituents, many of whom are Hispanic like me, so if you have nothing better to say, I’m going to hang up.”

I hope you can see it by now that …many of whom are Hispanic like me … is a line for the readers.

Here’s another tip: when you catch yourself giving expositional dialogue to a character, see if you can put it in the other character’s mouth as part of tense exchange. For example, you could have Cash say something like, “You may think you got the Hispanic vote, Morales, but your skin ain’t gonna win this thing.”

“I suggest you rethink your position.” His opponent’s voice was now disturbingly quiet, but Joe heard every word. He frowned, searching for a good reply, then heard Cash say, “Things might get ugly. Goodbye.”

I have a hard time believing a candidate would think such a vague threat over the phone would be enough to get his opponent to drop out. (Another needless word is Goodbye. Especially after a threat. Just have the guy hang up.) Because of that, I have no feeling of threat here, and thus am not worried about Joe. And a major goal of the first page is to start the reader worrying!

Whew! Listen, writer, don’t be discouraged. I went into detail because dialogue is the fastest way to improve—or sink—a manuscript. Editors, agents, and readers all make judgments based in large part on how the author handles dialogue. The good news is there are some basic dialogue techniques that are simple to understand and employ. If you wish to dig deeper, let me modestly suggest a book on the subject.

Bottom line: It’s crucial to know your characters inside and out, and know what they would say in a given situation. Don’t ever let them get caught slipping information to the reader.

One last item: the title. Perhaps this one is temporary for purposes of the WIP. I hope that’s the case, because you can and should come up with a much better title. On that matter, see this helpful post by our own P. J. Parrish (Kris).

All right, Zoners, add your helpful comments for our brave writer!

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23 thoughts on “Don’t Let Your Dialogue Stray From Your Characters

  1. Dear brave author:
    I love dialogue! I love putting my characters in a scene and letting them talk. But that’s the first draft. What Mr. Bell has described so wonderfully is what my crit partners refer to as “AYKB” speech. “As you know, Bob, last Tuesday our father died and the doctor said it was pneumonia.”
    When you put two characters who know each other and the situation in a scene, it’s tough to find creative ways to feed information to the reader, and Mr. Bell has given you some great suggestions.
    Dialogue isn’t real speech, but it has to sound like real speech.
    Bell’s “I define fluff as a needless word or two at the beginning of a sentence.” is a great reminder for me, because I write a lot of “throat clearing” words when my characters speak.
    Keep writing!

  2. Great breakdown! I’ve read your book on dialogue along with several others, including McKee’s, and they’ve helped immensely.

    I think the advice to read it aloud is probably the most important for newer writers. It’s part of the reason I like to write in an empty house–I sound like I’ve gone completely bananas when I’m acting out scenes.

    So yes, at the very least read it out loud. If you trip over the words, then your readers will, too.

  3. I love screenwriting – study movies for great dialogue.

    There is a play called The Real Inspector Hound that features a character named Mrs. Drudge. She speaks in sentences such as “good morning from Mudoon Manor on this crisp day in early spring.” Hilarious in the play, but a great example of what not to do in Serious World. I submit all my dialogue to the Would Mrs. Drudge Say This? test.

    Right now this sounds like dialogue between Pompous Guy #1 and Pompous Guy #2. If Joe is to be the hero, he needs to come across as not pompous.

    Here’s how I would do it if I were writing the movie:

    Evil Politician – insert threatening and belittling speech from above

    Joe: Then you have nothing to worry about.

    Joe hangs up and goes on about his day.

    Good luck with this.

  4. I don’t particularly seek out political fiction, but since this first page was narrowed down to two characters at odds, I would read more.

    The amount of description in the first paragraph didn’t bother me, but unhelpful description did. A brown leather briefcase only told me Joe was a working guy. Is it a sleek briefcase? A utilitarian briefcase? Maybe the same one his dad used to carry? I also don’t care about the red brick. We have red brick in Virginia, too, and probably in every town across the US. It doesn’t tell me anything specific about Joe’s working place. The pink and gray marble does, however. That beautiful Texas granite, I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

    I was a little confused. Is it summer with “the energy-sapping summer heat,” or is it fall with the autumnal colors of the sweetgum?

    I thought JSB’s suggestions for dialogue were tremendously helpful. (I just added his dialogue book to my must-read list.) With some changes in dialogue, not only would I read more, but I would eagerly turn the page for more.

  5. “Here’s a dialogue tip: Read it out loud, with feeling (like an actor).”

    That advice is pure gold. Yes, it takes time and requires focus, but getting into character a la Strasberg gives writers insight that makes their characters come alive.

  6. I looked up my first “novel” to see what my early attempts looked like. Here is the opening of The Journey:

    “Good morning, Bill Cummins,” Rodger Dayton said.
    “Good morning, Roger Dayton. Shall we start our twenty-third day of wandering across America?’

    Horrible isn’t strong enough.
    If there was hope for me there is a lot more for you. Best of luck and keep writing.

  7. To all first drafters. Under the TKZ Library heading there are 14 articles on Openings. Read or reread them all. It’s a free education.

  8. This post is packed full of goodies for writers at any level. I love your dialogue examples. They are filled with conflict and innuendo and definitely sound more realistic, with better cadence and rhythm.

    Your tips are a reminder to tell the story through the eyes of a character who deserves the spotlight. Effective narratives aren’t just random observations, but colorful insights as seen through the storyteller. It makes a more cohesive and compelling tale.

    Thank you, Jim. Well done and inspiring.

  9. My first time posting, but have lurked for some time.
    I wholeheartedly agree and thank you James for the insight. Dialogue used to be my kryptonite until I started doing what was suggested…read it out loud.

    That once action can make all the difference. After much cringing, I started incorporating contractions, interruptions and emotion into my dialogue. It gave the interactions a more natural feel and my readers enjoyed it.
    Great post JSB!

  10. Thanks for sharing your work with us, brave writer. Here are my comments:

    1. The title is likely the first thing a literary agent see when you submit your work. It needs to be original.

    2. The first line is equally important. Your first line is long and clunky:

    “On a sunny October morning, Attorney Joe Morales parked his Lexus, carried his brown leather briefcase past a sweetgum tree sporting red, yellow, and orange leaves, and headed to his Dallas office.”

    Consider something more concise.

    3. Have you ever watched Law and Order? If you have, you know that no time is wasted with getting people to/from places. Likewise, wise writers start the action where the scene will take place. There’s no need to show the attorney parking his car and walking to his office unless something compelling happens on the way.

    4. I would not begin a novel with two men jabbering on the telephone. This does not make for a very exciting scene. Any dialogue in the first scene of a book (with few exceptions) should happen between characters who are in the same room. There are exceptions, but your first scene is not very compelling as it is written.

    5. Too much backstory on the first page. Find a way to dramatize the fact that the two men are political opponents. For example (and this is just an example – I’m not saying to do this specifically), you could have one of the protagonist’s campaign contributors meeting with him somewhere (make it someplace interesting and unexpected – it doesn’t have to be in an office; it could be at a poker game or on a sailboat). The campaign contributor could express concern about what should be done about the opponent and the billboards and such. Whatever you choose, it has to be something unexpected.

    6. Any dialogue (and again, please don’t use telephone dialogue for your first scene) should be snappy. Real men (at least the ones I know) aren’t that chatty. Moreover, both men sound like the author. Each character needs to speak in a unique way. Neither should sound like the author.

    7. It’s good that you make Joe Morales an underdog, but you definitely need to dramatize it better using a more compelling opening scene.

    8. While it’s good to ground the reader in the setting, you don’t want to overdo it. Sometimes less is more. You used way too many color words on the first page, for example. Check out Jake Vander Ark’s book called Put the Cat in the Oven Before You Describe the Kitchen.

    And this sentence is just TMI:

    “Inside the red brick building, he walked across the pink and gray granite floor, caught a whiff of the scents from a tasteful arrangement of marigolds and chrysanthemums on the counter, and waved to the clerk behind it.”

    If this guy works at this same office every day, he’s not going to pay much attention to stuff he sees every day. What you want to tell the reader about is anything unusual that he sees.

    9. Find a way to make the reader bond with the protagonist on the first page. It would be good for the reader to know more about his motivation for running for office against such a formidable opponent.

    10. Continue to work on developing your voice.

    Thanks again for sharing your work with us. I hope you find my comments helpful. Keep working on this, and never be discouraged. You might want to check out a book by Paula Munier called The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell, which deserves a home on your bookshelf along with all of the great books by James Scott Bell. Keep writing, brave writer.

    • Oops. Spotted a typo.

      “1. The title is likely the first thing a literary agent see when you submit your work.”

      should read

      1. The title is likely the first thing a literary agent sees when you submit your work.

  11. *scurries to check the WIP for fluff* 😉
    How to Write Dazzling Dialogue should be a staple in every writer’s toolbox. It’s one of my go-to resources.

    I started Blind Justice over the weekend, which I’m really enjoying. Please permit me to use your dialogue to reinforce your suggestions for this first page. It’s the perfect example of a tight, believable conversation between ex-spouses who share custody of a child.

    I fumbled for the phone. “Yeah?”
    “Jake?” It was my lovely ex, Barb, she of the exquisite timing.
    “What is it?” I said.
    “How are you?”
    “You know me.”
    “Taking care of yourself?”
    “You a doctor?”

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