Mushy Dialogue Sucks

There. I said it.

Mushy dialogue sucks. It’s nothing space in your story and sometimes it’s nothing space in your life. You know what I’m talking about, right? You meet some cool human at a coffee house and talk to them and it goes like this:

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

“How’s it shaking?”

“It’s shaking well, thank you.”

“Yeah. Weather is nice, right?”

“It’s quite sunny.”

“Cool.”

“Yes, it’s lovely.”

Random bad dialogue that I just made up

One of my writers in the Writing Barn class that I’m teaching for the next six months, directed me to a blog post about the Five Biggest Writing Mistakes and How to Fix Them and one of those mistakes according to James Scott Bell is marshmallow dialogue.

Bell believes that dialogue is one of the best ways to make a story better or make it absolute trash. He advocates fast-paced dialogue full of tension. Blah dialogue he says is ‘puffy,’ and ‘overly sweet,’ and everyone sounds the same no matter who is speaking.

Bell kindly gives hints about how to make characters sound different from one another.

Those include:

  • Making documents written solely in one character’s voice.
  • Keep working on it until every character sounds different and you can distinguish them at a glance (I added that)
  • Make sure there is tension going on. What do people want? Why are they talking? Do they want the same thing?
  • Make your dialogue simpler. Get rid of extra words. You can cut and copy dialogue into another document and then hack away at it.

He uses the following example of compressed dialogue.

“Mary, are you angry with me?” John asked.

“You’re damn straight I’m mad at you,” Mary said.

“But why? You’ve got absolutely no reason to be!”

“Oh but I do, I do. And you can see it in my face, can’t you?”

The alternative:

“You angry with me?” John asked.

“Damn straight,” Mary said.

“You got no reason to be!”

Mary felt her hands curling into fists.

Bell’s example

I’m annoying and I send my apologies to Mr. Bell, but that example is wonderful at compressing dialogue, but those people? They still sound the same to me. In the first example, they both sound like middle class people who are having a hard time expressing their feelings. In the second example, they sound like people who are expressing their feelings in exactly the same way and are probably are still the same social/economic/education background.

Look at what happens if you keep one character’s original lines and one character’s new lines.

“Mary, are you angry with me?” John asked.
“Damn straight,” Mary said.
“But why? You’ve got absolutely no reason to be!”
Mary’s hands curled into fists.

Or….

“You angry with me?” John asked.

“You’re damn straight I’m mad at you,” Mary said.

“But why? You have absolutely no reason to be?”


Mary’s hands curled into fists.

Revision

I’d argue that’s even better. For more about how language and dialogue changes with the speakers, check out our Dogs are Smarter than People podcast from last year. And good luck with your dialogue!

Links that go with the podcast (the important words are here and here.




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WRITING AND OTHER NEWS

ART.

I do art stuff. You can find it and buy a print here. 

Bar Harbor Painting Schooner
Bar Harbor Painting Schooner

TIME STOPPERS!

You can order my middle grade fantasy novel Time Stoppers Escape From the Badlands here or anywhere.

People call it a cross between Harry Potter and Percy Jackson but it’s set in Maine. It’s full of adventure, quirkiness and heart.

Time Stoppers Carrie Jones Middle grade fantasy

MOE BERG 

The Spy Who Played Baseball is a picture book biography about Moe Berg. And… there’s a movie out now about Moe Berg, a major league baseball player who became a spy. How cool is that?

It’s awesome and quirky and fun.

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FLYING AND ENHANCED

Men in Black meet Buffy the Vampire Slayer? You know it. You can buy them here or anywhere.

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Talk to Me, Baby! Dialogue Help on Writing Tip Wednesday

It’s Writing Tip Wednesday and today we’re talking about talking.

What’s that mean?

Dialogue, baby. It’s that magic place where the characters get to speak for themselves.

So, the number one tip is super obvious, but yet… so many of us don’t do it.

SAY YOUR DIALOGUE

Out loud.

 

That’s easy enough, right? But actually listen to how the words sound. Is it awkward? Too perfect? Is someone saying an 895-word sentence?

Think about the breath units.

Wait. Breath units? What’s that?

A breath unit is how many syllables are read in one breath. You breathe at periods and commas and punctuation marks, right?

So, if your dialogue sentences have more than 20 syllables? It’s going to be cruddy. If it’s all five or less? It’s going to sound cruddy too.

Poets use this writing tool and think about this all the time. Fiction writers should too because the cadence of your words and your writing matters AND because you should have as many tools in your tool box as possible.

Once you know the tools, you can break the rules for dramatic effect. Stephen King often writes a 100-word sentence full of long breath units and follows it with a one-breath-unit sentence-slash- paragraph for a dramatic punch.

Genius.

And I sort of did that up there.

See? This sentence is super long (40 syllables):

Stephen King often writes a 100-word sentence full of long breath units and follows it with a one-breath-unit sentence-slash- paragraph for a dramatic punch.

And followed it with this (2 syllables):

Genius.

That’s not dialogue, but it helps make it understandable, right?

And to be fair, not all people and all cultures have that typical upper middle class white person in the United States breath unit. Think of Eminem or Busta Rhymes or Tech N9ne for a second and all the words each of those men can say in one breath. Chopper-style rap has this awesome, intense emphasis on speed and pronunciation, which throws the rules of breath units out the window. Here’s a link to some fast rap examples courtesy of Red Bull.

Warning: There is profanity.

And those differences are important. It’s good to remember where the ‘rules’ come from and who they come from and also to give yourself the liberty to play with them or against them.

So, do that. Say your dialogue aloud. Play around with the breath. Think about the things your character is feeling underneath the words she’s saying.

If a cop or a werewolf is chasing your Scooby gang, they aren’t going to be eloquent and have long beat units. If they’re on drugs, giving a speech, or borderline hysterical? Those beats are going to show that.

WRITING NEWS

I’m heading to Freeport, Maine on Sept. 28 and then Houston and Virginia Beach pretty soon to promote my picture book biography of Moe Berg. It’s called The Spy Who Played Baseball. 

My Post copy 6

I’ll be hanging with a lot of other cool authors in Freeport.

Copy of A Nerdy evening with authors and illustrators (3)

 

ENHANCED, the follow-up to FLYING is here! And the books are out of this world. Please buy them and support a writer.

 

The last TIME STOPPERS BOOK is out and I love it. You should buy it because it’s empowering and about friendship and bias and magic. Plus, dragons and elves.

Timestoppers3_005

How to Get Signed Copies: 

If you would like to purchase signed copies of my books, you can do so through the awesome Sherman’s Book Store in Bar Harbor, Maine or the amazing Briar Patch. The books are also available online at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

For signed copies – email barharbor@shermans.com for Sherman’s or email info@briarpatchbooks.comand let them know the titles in which you are interested. There’s sometimes a waiting list, but they are the best option. Plus, you’re supporting an adorable local bookstore run by some really wonderful humans. But here’s the Amazon link, too!

Art Stuff

You can buy prints of my art here. Thank you so much for supporting my books and me and each other. I hope you have an amazing day.