The coffee shop’s door chimed as it opened and a hurricane of yellow wool rushed in.
Please don’t let that be her. Oh God, please don’t…
The hurricane stopped at my table. “Renee?”
“Yes,” I tried to hide my dismay with a weak smile. She’d be perky and curious and we’d be besties by the end of this torture. “You must be Kate.”
Kate nodded, plunking a large purse on the small table before she sank into the booth. The worn leather seat whooshed as she settled into it. “I’m so glad you agreed to this.”
That makes one of us. “I have somewhere to be in an hour, so we’ll have to make this quick.
The key to avoiding people is to endure limited social interaction so the rest of the time, people will leave you alone. You have to give yourself an exit, just in case a hasty retreat is needed. I had nothing to do in an hour, but Kate didn’t know that, so her feelings wouldn’t be hurt when I abruptly took off.
“Okay,” she put her phone on the table and pressed the screen. I raised an eyebrow. “Oh, I take notes, but I’m slow. Recording the interview helps me recall anything I might miss in the notes.”
“So,” she said. “Let’s start with your characters. How do you make them so… vivid?”
“I don’t follow.”
“I use dialogue.” How more clear could I be?
“Can you explain that a little?”
I sighed. Where to begin? “Well, dialogue that’s done right can move your story forward, and it can add depth to your characters.”
“If it’s done well, it creates intimacy between the reader and the story.”
She nodded. “So that’s why it should be written how it’s spoken.”
“No,” Aren’t author interviews supposed to be about the author and the books? I wasn’t prepared to discuss the nuts and bolts of writing. And dialogue should have its own book. There are so many intricacies and nuances involved.
“Can you elaborate on that?”
Ugh. Fine. “We don’t actually say “er” or things like that when we talk.” I explained. “We’re more likely to pause or fidget when we feel uncertain. And writing things exactly how they sound is jarring for the reader, pulls her out of the story. Instead of writing dialect as it sounds, you can simply imply the person had a specific accent. Or choose a few words he says differently, instead of making all of his dialogue unreadable.”
“Can you give me an example of this?”
“No,” I know I sounded like an asshole, but I’m not a writing instructor.
“Oh,” she tapped the notepad with her pen. “It’s just that—”
“Well, take “you’re” for example.” I said. “A redneck might say “yer”, y-e-r. He might also drop the g’s from anything ending in “ing” and all of this s’s might sound like “sh.” He might add letters where they don’t belong, or his a’s might sounds more like u’s. Writing all of his speech exactly how it would sound in real life is so distracting for a reader. Choose a couple of quirks, but don’t use all of them when he speaks or it’ll read like a five year old’s first short story.”
“I think I get it.”
Glad one of us did. “I’m not trying to be difficult. It’s hard to simplify what makes dialogue good. There are so many factors involved, and some writers just know how to do it.”
“I guess so, but only because I focus on it. My first drafts are almost entirely dialogue.”
Kate nodded. “I noticed your books use a lot of it. Do you think it’s less telling than narrative?”
“No. Narrative is just as important. I add that, as well as setting and action, later on. Dialogue is how I build characters, so I worry about that first. In the end, a good book has equal amounts of narrative and dialogue.”
“I didn’t know that,” Kate said. “So let’s move on. If you had to give just one tip about dialogue, what would it be?”
One tip? Just one? Jesus, that was like asking me to suggest only one type of donut. I thought about it for a minute, painfully aware of Kate’s bright blue eyes on me. Finally, I had it. I sat a little straighter in the booth and met Kate’s gaze. “Dialogue should serve a purpose. If it doesn’t provide information, add emotion to a scene, or move the story forward, then it’s probably not necessary, and including it is just fluffing up the scene.”
“How do you know what to cut?”
“It varies for each writer. I avoid removing anything that enhances the “feel” of the character, or that reveals something integral to the plot, and I take out the stuff that’s just filler.”
“Good,” she said. “Now, I’ve noticed your characters are distinct, even with their dialogue. I know who is speaking after a while without any tags to tell me. How do you do that?”
Very carefully? “This is going to sound stupid,” I said. And probably cliché, I added silently. “But I hear my characters speaking in my head. They all have their own voices, their own mannerisms and quirk. If I can’t hear a character clearly, he doesn’t get to speak.”
“And this does what?”
Makes me crazy? I tried to look serious as I formed my answer. “Well, when you edit, you’re told to read the dialogue aloud. This is so you can hear each line, pick out the differences in each character’s speech, and make sure that all dialogue feels natural for the reader. Any area that makes you stumble as you read will make the reader stumble, so it should be revised or removed. When I hear them in my head, I do the same thing… if that makes sense.”
“What about the unspoken dialogue? I noticed you use a lot of that too.”
“Internal dialogue helps the reader bond with the character, because it offers some insight that is known only to the reader. I try to balance both internal and spoken dialogue so the reader isn’t bogged down with lines and lines of speech.”
Kate scribbled furiously. I wondered how much of her notes were legible. Looked like swirly bits of gibberish from my side of the table. She glanced up from the notepad and smiled. “You often have several characters in a scene, yet I know what’s happening and it’s easy to “see” what’s happening.”
“Tags are a handy tool.” I said.
“I pay attention to the kind of tags I use. I don’t try to be creative with them. Said is a simple tag, a little boring, but preferable to ones like chortled, moaned, or laughed.”
“But doesn’t it make it more interesting to use descriptive tags?”
“Some writers think said is too boring, so they use what they believe is a more exciting word. I do it in my rough drafts, and sometimes a more interesting word is all right, but most of the time, it’s just distracting.”
“It doesn’t help make the scene clearer for the reader?”
Oh, the poor dear. So much to learn. I shook my head. “Readers accept invisible tags like said because they hardly notice them. Words like whispered, shouted, or cried draw the reader’s attention from the dialogue to the tag, which yanks them from the story.”
“But they’re not wrong, right?”
“No,” I said. “But they’re not entirely right. Said bookisms—”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Oh, the descriptive tags are called “said bookisms.” They give the dialogue an amateur feel; perhaps not to readers, but definitely to editors and other writers.”
“I’d assume if the reader doesn’t realize what they are, it shouldn’t matter. You can use what you want.”
And you’d be wrong, dear Kate. “While readers might not realize these tags are a no-no, they’ll definitely take note of them, especially if the writer is fond of using them. The more you use them, the more noticeable they become for the reader. They pull her away from what’s happening, distracting her and slowing down the story.”
Kate chewed the end of her pen. I hate when people do that. She tilted her head, eyeing me as though I might be lying to her. “You’ve used colorful tags.”
“I have, but my point is I try not to. In most cases, using those kinds of tags only proves you have a solid relationship with a thesaurus. Besides,” I shrugged. “If the dialogue is strong, you don’t need more than he said or she said.”
“Seems kind of boring.”
“I’m not saying it’s never okay. Think of them as decoration, like jewellery. I’d never wear ten earrings or three rings on each finger. It’s excessive and tacky. I use said bookisms only to enhance the finished product. Like jewellery, I reserve them for special occasions. Characters do sometimes shout something, and they might even mutter, but not all the time.”
She still looked doubtful. Why do I even bother?
“I read a lot,” Kate said. “And I’ve seen tons of bestselling authors use these said bookisms all the time.”
“Doesn’t make it right.” I realized I sounded like a snob, so I smiled. “I’m not an expert. Let’s say in my opinion, many bestsellers using said bookisms are good enough at the other stuff to get away with fluffy tags now and then.”
Kate nodded. “Okay, so your advice to a new writer would be to make sure the descriptive stuff isn’t needed?”
“When it comes to dialogue tags, less is more. And I should add that tags that are impossible should be avoided completely.”
“When we speak, we don’t actually blaze, hiss, or shriek.”
“Good point,” Kate said.
“Make sure it’s physically possible for the character to do what you’re describing. Expressions are actions, not tags. They’re physical movements, so characters shouldn’t grimace, sneer, laugh, or smile any line. They might do these things before or after they speak, but most of the time, they don’t need to do it at all.”
“I get it,” Kate smiled. “So, instead of writing the dialogue and saying “he laughed” you’d write he laughed first, and then the dialogue.”
“Yes. If you’re doing it right, you can just delete the descriptor, because the action will be implied in the words spoken.”
“And avoid adverbs.” I added, warming to the topic. “Scathingly, haughtily, and all that stuff is annoying. I hate seeing someone say anything with an ly word. Just proves you don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Any other tips?”
“Well,” I had lots, but this interview had already derailed. I was sure her readers would be snoring by the second paragraph. “I suppose there are a few things new writers should remember.”
“We rarely address each other so formally by name when we speak, so writers need to stop doing that. And most people use conjunctions like I’ve, haven’t, or don’t in natural dialogue, instead of the more formal phrases like I have or do not. When we speak, we don’t refer to things by the proper name either. Most people say phone instead of telephone, car or truck instead of the actual make and model, and we leave sentences hanging or omit some words.”
She let out a long breath and stared at her notepad. “You weren’t kidding about how much you focus on dialogue.”
“Badly written dialogue pisses me off as a reader.”
She laughed. “What about interruptions? That little line I see when this happens in books must be distracting.”
“We interrupt each other all the time, so having a character cut another character off in mid-sentence is natural. What’s not natural is adding a tag. Unless you’ve got more than two people talking, you don’t have to add that so-and-so interrupted. Using an emdash at the end of the interrupted dialogue is enough.”
“Keep going,” Kate smiled as she scribbled.
What else could I say? The interview was now a class on writing. “I guess attributions are the other peeve I have. They indicate who is speaking in an exchange.”
“And how would you handle these?”
“Dialogue needs attributions in order to keep the reader following along. Too few and we’re lost, but too many and it’s amateurish. I try to keep my attributions to one attribution for every three to five lines of dialogue, unless I have more than two characters speaking in a scene. In that case, I try to use “said” or actions that smoothly introduce the new speaker, like “Joe cleared his throat” or “Jane frowned” to avoid disrupting the flow too much.”
Was it really, though? I leaned into my seat. “Do you have any questions about my books?”
“Nope.” She closed the notepad. “This is perfect.”
“I should go,” she gathered her phone and her notepad. “It was great meeting you.”
I watched her sling the giant purse over her shoulder and slide out of the booth. Wasn’t I supposed to be making the hasty getaway? “You too,” I said instead.
When she's not burning dinner or waiting tables in a pizza joint, she dwells in a glamorous office/garage cuddled up with her laptop. She's what folks like to call a "hybrid" author, having self-published three novels in the crime/suspense and romance genres, and recently signed with Crescent Moon Press to publish a series of paranormal novels featuring Greek gods.
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