Friday, March 13, 2015

4 The Word on Dialogue (Read If You Like Ice Cream) by Stacey Lee

Today we welcome one of the founding members of #WeNeedDiverseBooks to the blog. Author Stacey Lee shares some great tips for writing delicious dialogue...though I have to disagree with her on one thing: I LOVE plotting! Thank you, Stacey, for making us all hungry for some Ben & Jerry's!

The Word on Dialogue (Read If You Like Ice Cream): A Craft of Writing Post by Stacey Lee

Of all the elements that make up a book, every writer has one that, like a favorite toy, is just more fun to play with. One of my critique partners loves writing internal monologue, while another goes bananas over world building. Everyone has her thing. (Except for plotting. No one really likes plotting.) My thing is dialogue.

Dialogue is to story what peanut butter is to Ben & Jerry’s Chubby Hubby ice cream – the magic ingredient that makes the whole tub disappear in one sitting. Those little bits of peanutty goodness keep you wanting just one more taste, one more delicious chapter. Dialogue breaks up the monotony of what would otherwise be a pint of boring vanilla.

Dialogue also helps flesh out each character’s personality. We should learn a lot about someone by what they say and how they say it. Last, dialogue moves forward plot. Consider this example from the Princess Bride:

Westley: “Hear this now, I will always come for you.”
Buttercup: “But how can you be sure?”
Westley: “This is true love. You think this happens every day?

These simple lines tell us a lot about Westley. He’s romantic, heroic, and he has a sense of humor. The plot also progresses. We know that Westley will come for Buttercup, and anticipate that reunion.

Now that I’ve impressed you with the importance of dialogue, here are my five hot tips for working with it.

1. Give information via dialogue. Because dialogue is such a multi-tasker, better to give information via dialogue than through narration. If you find you have paragraph upon paragraph of text, try transforming it into dialogue. You get bonus points if you break up dialogue with action or internal monologue. Back to that container of Chubby Hubby, no one wants to eat a full tub of only peanut butter. Unless of course you’re on a bad date and need an excuse not to talk. Not that this has ever happened.

Here’s an example of transforming narration to dialogue using the characters from my novel UNDER A PAINTED SKY, which is narrated by the main character, Samantha.

We study a handsome firearm with a sharp nose, lying on the chair. The grocer Mr. Trask kept one just like it in a cigar box by his register. I never even held one before, but maybe Annamae has. I just hope I won’t shoot myself in the foot.

Transformed to dialogue interspersed with action and internal monologue:

I point to the firearm. “That’s a Colt Dragoon.” Mr. Trask the grocer kept one just like it in a cigar box by his register.

Annamae frowns. “You know how to shoot that?”

“Only how not to shoot my foot.”

Better, right? The story becomes more active with the dialogue, we get a sense of Samantha and Annamae’s personalities, and we are more likely to remember this information than if it came in the middle of a text heavy paragraph.

2. Cut dialogue tags where possible. Let the action and context show you who is speaking. Dialogue tags can overwhelm a scene, and disrupt the flow of the narrative. In the above example, no dialogue tags are used. The reader knows who is speaking because of where dialogue is placed, or even because of particular speech patterns. Back in the old days, the books we read used dialogue tags, and so that’s how we thought it was done. Thankfully, styles have changed for the better.

3. Give every character his or her own unique way of speaking. This could be through dialect, word choice, speech length, slang, etc. A common beginner’s writing mistake is when everyone comes out sounding exactly alike. The pattern of speech should reflect the character’s personalities. Are they confident or shy? What is their sense of humor – dry, cheesy? Are they optimists, or pessimists? Idealists? A good writer will be able to convey who is speaking simply by how they speak.

Let’s do a mini exercise. Say a character needs to use the bathroom. How would the following characters express this need? I will do the first two, and you do the last.

Yoda: “A leak, I must take.”
Princess Leia: “I happen to like nice bathrooms.”
Han Solo:
Darth Vadar:

4. Make every word count. It is possible to overdo dialogue. No one likes to listen to long, boring speech. Readers do not need to know every word your character says, just the important ones. SCBWI Executive Director Lin Oliver once said, “Dialogue should be the conversations you would want to eavesdrop on, not the things you tune out.”

5. Sound natural. The goal is to approximate speech you hear in real life. You don’t have to use full and complete sentences, and sometimes your dialogue may not even be grammatically correct (e.g., see Yoda example in #3). But the more realistic your dialogue sounds, the less you risk your readers being pulled out of the story. If you struggling with dialogue, write for content first, then edit so that it sounds natural.

Stacey puts down her pen. “Now let’s all have some Chubby Hubby together!”

About the Author:

Debut author Stacey Lee is a fourth generation Chinese-American whose people came to California during the heydays of the cowboys. She believes she still has a bit of cowboy dust in her soul. A native of southern California, she graduated from UCLA then got her law degree at UC Davis King Hall. She plays classical piano, raises children, and writes YA fiction. As a founding member of the grassroots #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, Stacey is a highly vocal participant in a discussion that is making waves within the publishing industry. As their legal liaison, she has participated in and/or moderated diversity panels across the country.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads

About the Book:
Missouri, 1849: Samantha dreams of moving back to New York to be a professional musician--not an easy thing if you're a girl, and harder still if you're Chinese. But a tragic accident dashes any hopes of fulfilling her dream, and instead, leaves her fearing for her life. With the help of a runaway slave named Annamae, Samantha flees town for the unknown frontier. But life on the Oregon Trail is unsafe for two girls, so they disguise themselves as Sammy and Andy, two boys headed for the California gold rush.

Sammy and Andy forge a powerful bond as they each search for a link to their past, and struggle to avoid any unwanted attention. But when they cross paths with a band of cowboys, the light-hearted troupe turn out to be unexpected allies. With the law closing in on them and new setbacks coming each day, the girls quickly learn that there are not many places to hide on the open trail.

An unforgettable story of friendship and sacrifice--perfect for fans of Code Name Verity.

Amazon | Indiebound | Goodreads

-- posted by Susan Sipal, @HP4Writers


  1. I also love writing dialogue. Thanks for this post. Under a Painted Sky is very high up on my TBR list. I hope I can get it soon!

  2. Soooooooooo excited for UNDER A PAINTED SKY, Stacey. Love this snappy post, and not just for the Star Wars references.

    Han: Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything like the plumbing in Cloud City.

    Vader: I've felt a great disturbance in the force.

  3. Great post and challenge. Look forward to reading it Stacey's book.


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