The Depths of Dialogue

“Class, the week before last we were discussing dialogue concerns.” She sniffed, and nudged her glasses back up her nose. “Your homework was to discover some dialogue concerns of your own. Raise your hand if you found at least one.”

A smattering of hands are raised, here and there. More than she expected, really. She walks over to the white board. “All right, then, what did you ascertain?”

*

Well, what did we ascertain?

Another key point to watch out for is what we’ll call—for lack of a better term—over-cussing. Let’s say a regular conversation with a college-age male might go like this:

“I fuckin’ tell ya, man, this is fuckin’ bullshit. I can’t even fuckin’ believe Mary would steal the key to my fuckin’ storage unit and set fire to all my goddamn shit. All my goddamn shit!”

Now, if you say it aloud, it sounds fairly normal, if angry. But in dialogue form, it’s… terrifying. And knocks the reader out of any story you are trying to create. Cuss words in speech—especially with young people in this day and age—are little more than emphatic interjections. But cuss words in writing pack a much, much larger punch. “I tell ya, man, this is bullshit. I can’t fuckin’ believe Mary would steal the key to my storage unit and set fire to all my goddamn stuff” is hardcore enough, in written form.

We think it may be because, historically, cuss words were palabra non grata in written speech, period. So while “fucking” may sound like “gosh-darned” to the trained ear, “fucking” still looks like “fucking” to the eye, because our eyes have not yet been trained to read past these words. Maybe in a hundred years this will be different, but right now, it’s important to choose your cuss words carefully, and make sure to only use them when you really need them.

After all, everyone remembers the one single cuss word in Harry Potter, when Molly Weasley shouts, “You bitch!” Quite the punch that packed.

The above sentence also leads us into another point, which is: stick with standard spelling if at all possible. Just because a person sounds like they’re saying, “Ay assed fur a dubble rume weeth ay beth,” doesn’t mean you should actually write it that way. When the reader has to stop and peer closely at each syllable, it breaks the flow of the story. “I assed for a double room weeth a bath” makes it very clear that there is an accent involved, but is much easier to comprehend in a single read. Especially as “Ay” and “I” are essentially the same sound, as are “dubble” and “double”, and “rume” and “room”. (And yes, that was from an actual published book.)

You see this in Scottish-based novels, especially. “Och aye, me lassie, an’ I shall gev ye a wallopin’ if’n ye donna be doin’ as I ask ye.”

Entirely unnecessary—especially if it comes from a protagonist, who has a large portion of dialogue, instead of a throwaway Nanny character with three lines.

Pirates, as well: “I be feelin’ that thar be somethin’ between us, lubber.”

The whole point of a story—the essential function—is that it allows a reader to escape into a world you’ve created. If the reader keeps being drawn back to the physical page time and again, sounding out syllable after syllable because your malformed words don’t make sense to their eyeballs… somethin’ be wrong, matey.

 

What other dialogue issues have you noticed in the books you read? Or, conversely, are there any awesome dialogue techniques you’ve noticed and appreciated?

An Easter Treat: The Literary Easter Egg

colorful-easter-eggs

No Easter tradition is better loved than the egg hunt. Every year, children scurry through the house and yard, searching behind bushes and under chairs for eggs filled with goodies. After all, who doesn’t love a competitive adventure that has chocolate waiting at the end?

Grown-ups can find their own version of Easter egg hunts, although the treat at the end is (perhaps unfortunately) not candy. “Easter eggs” is the term used to refer to hidden content or messages. While Easter eggs originated in computer programs, they have since spread to other forms of media—video games, movies, artwork, and, of course, books.

So, what exactly is a literary Easter egg? Some common examples are inside jokes, secret codes, and subtle references. Any sort of unexpected, veiled surprise could be considered an Easter egg.

Many great stories throughout years have been dotted with Easter eggs, although you might not have noticed them if you didn’t realize you were on the hunt. Here are a few examples.

  1. Through the Looking Glass: Lewis Carroll’s famed work features an acrostic poem that spells out “Alice Pleasance Liddell,” the name of the real girl who inspired the fictional Alice.
  2. A Series of Unfortunate Events: This children’s series by Daniel Handler, pen name Lemony Snicket, is full of twists and intrigue, creating the perfect atmosphere for hidden Easter eggs. For example, in A Hostile Hospital, a list of names features anagrams of both Daniel Handler and Brett Helquist, the book’s illustrator. Another anagram is made from the pen name Lemony Snicket for the name of one of the characters, Monty Kensicle.
  3. Star Wars: In some of the Star Wars books, Han Solo mentions that he uses the name Jenos Idanian as an alias. This is an anagram of Indiana Jones, who is played by Harrison Ford—the same actor who plays Han Solo in the Star Wars movies.
  4. Sarah Dessen’s novels: Popular YA author Sarah Dessen is known for setting her stories in recurring locations, and many of her characters run into each other across their books. Just to name a couple of examples, the protagonists of The Truth About Forever make a cameo appearance in Just Listen, and a character from This Lullaby is seen briefly in Lock and Key.
  5. The Great Gatsby: This literary classic opens with a poetic epigraph that begins, “Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her…” and is attributed to Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. While, generally, readers expect epigraphs to be quotes from other published authors, only true Fitzgerald fans would know that Thomas Parke D’Invilliers is actually a fictional character in Fitzgerald’s third novel, This Side of Paradise!
  6. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: When J.K. Rowling received a letter from a young fan named Natalie who had a terminal illness, Rowling wrote the girl a letter detailing the rest of Harry Potter’s storyline. Unfortunately, Natalie died before receiving the letter. Rowling named a minor character in her honor; Natalie is a young student who is sorted into Gryffindor at the beginning of the book.

These are only a few examples of the various forms that Easter eggs may take in writing. Hopefully they provide inspiration for the kind of “treats” you can hide in your writing.

Easter eggs are beloved by readers because of the sense of fun and discovery they deliver. Entertain and challenge yourself by weaving hidden surprises through your writing as you create a literary Easter egg hunt of your own.

Happy hunting, and happy Easter!

 

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Everybody Talks

“Now, class, since we have been perusing and discussing dialogue lately, due to the Male/Female Dialogue experiment, we thought today would be a good day to discuss—”

“Dialogue?” Someone shouted.

“Indeed. Now, if I may continue? …We have talked about dialogue before, in terms of editing, but of course there are numerous other facets to the creation and formation of dialogue.” She turned to the dry-erase board, marker at the ready.

“More like numerous other facets to my ass,” someone mumbled from near the back row. Jack, of course.

She turned and threw the eraser at Jack’s head.

*

The best way to write good dialogue? Read good dialogue.

The end.

Yes, you can tell your boss/mother/lover we said so, when they catch you reading under the desk/dinner table/bedsheets.

(Not that we’re saying the above is particularly good dialogue.)

Actually, this isn’t facetious. Written dialogue is different from written narration, but is also different from simply hearing someone talk. Still, you often don’t understand the problems with your dialogue until you hear someone read it aloud. Writing dialogue is, in some ways, an oxymoron. It’s silent speech. It has a whole different set of conventions from both actual speech and written narration, and the only—ONLY—way to internalize them is to read dialogue that uses those conventions properly. After all, people can’t say “…”, and someone will never indicate quotation marks unless they’re being sarcastic.

But there are many other things to learn besides punctuation. What are other key dialogue points?

Here’s one: make sure your characters are not chuckling and giggling and grinning every other sentence.

As authors it’s okay to want the story and our characters to be funny, but a character’s active “participation” in the funny is something that rarely happens in real life. Even in a scene that makes a reader laugh out loud, characters are more likely to be rolling their eyes or spilling their beer.

For instance, take this Stephanie Plum scene, from Eleven on Top by Janet Evanovich:

…Valerie put five green beans on her big empty plate and angrily stabbed them with her fork. Thunk, thunk, thunk.

“What’s with you?” Grandma said to Valerie.

“I’m on a diet. All I get to eat are these beans. Five boring hideous beans.” The grip on her fork was white-knuckled, her lips were pressed tightly together, and her eyes glittered feverishly as she took in Joe’s plate directly across from her. Joe had a mountain of creamy mashed potatoes and four thick slabs of meatloaf, all drenched in gravy.

“Maybe this isn’t a good time to be on a diet, what with all the stress over the wedding and all,” Grandma said.

“It’s because of the wedding I have to diet,” Valerie said, teeth clenched.

Mary Alice forked up a piece of meatloaf. “Mommy’s a blimp.”

Valerie made a growling sound that had me worrying her head was going to start doing full rotations on her neck.

“Maybe I should check on Albert,” Morelli said to me.

I narrowed my eyes and looked at him sideways. “You’re going to sneak out, aren’t you?”

Not a single smile was cracked within the scene.

But bookending character dialogue with guffaws and grins is something that is incredibly easy to do. We did it in a previous article, and just barely caught it before the article was posted. It’s insidious. Look over your scenes—just because you want a humorous scene, doesn’t mean the characters will find it humorous. People just don’t laugh like that in real life… unless they’re on an awkward first date, maybe.

In contrast, read this:

“What do you think of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” Zach asked in a joking tone, flashing the cover with a chuckle.

Marian grinned. “Well, it certainly brings back memories.”

“Like when you tried to eat a whole pepperoni pizza in one sitting?” Joey laughed, and wandered over to his movie cabinet. Smiling, he slapped Zach on the back. “Watch out for this one, she uses pizza for health.”

Mark giggled so hard he snorted soda out his nose. The whole room burst into gales of laughter.

Not only does it sound not-quite-right, it just seems like it’s… trying too hard. Like it’s on the previously-mentioned awkward first date.

And you don’t want your story to be like a first date… nobody likes first dates.

 

What other dialogue blunders have you noticed authors making? Let us know, and we’ll add them to the continuation of the list.

In the meantime… just scowl.

Male and Female Dialogue

A little while back, Love, Sex & Merlot, our sister imprint, posed an intriguing question: Can a reader consistently tell the gender of an author, solely by reading their dialogue?

The preliminary answer was too thought-provoking to not share…

You CAN tell the gender of an author solely by their written dialogue.

This is the list of books they used, keeping the same order as the snippets listed in their earlier poll:
Snippet #1: The Shadow in the North, by Philip Pullman (M)
Snippet #2: One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich (F)
Snippet #3: An Arranged Marriage, by Jo Beverley (F)
Snippet #4: The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde (M)
Snippet #5: Potatoes Are Cheaper, by Max Shulman (M)
Snippet #6: The Dressmaker, by Posie Graeme-Evans (F)
Snippet #7: Grania, by Morgan Llywellyn (F)
Snippet #8: The Wedding Officer, by Anthony Capella (M)
Snippet #9: Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik (F)
Snippet #10: Nina September, by Bron Zeage (M) … (P.S. This is LSM’s first erotica – mark your calendars for the July release!)

These were the guesses:

Experiment Results Chart

This, then, is the percentage of correct guesses:

Experiment Percentages Chart

They had unequal numbers of answers on most of these, since they ended up posing half the questions on social media as well as on the website.

But the results were rather astonishing.

Of the snippets with more than two answers (the ones with only two answers should be likely throw out for science’s sake), there was a remarkable lean towards one solid answer: Yes, you can tell the gender of an author by their writing style.

A few respondents were thrown off track by the gender of the narrator, but for the most part readers guessed correctly every time. This was made even more remarkable by the fact that these snippets represent books of many genres, published between the 1960s and the present day. It’s not always the case, clearly—Naomi Novik threw people for a loop. But 4 out of 5 leaves a far more obvious result than anyone was expecting.

Snippet #1 (Pullman) is a male writing a female lead. Snippet #2 (Evanovich) was specifically chosen to be tricky and seem masculine. Snippet #3 (Beverley) is a female writing a male conversation. Snippet #3 (Fforde) is, again, a male writing a female lead. And snippet #9 (Novik) is a female writing a male lead.

The main distinguisher that readers mentioned, throughout the polls, was basically brevity (in existence or lack thereof). The male authors tended towards shorter, brusquer sentences with fewer adjectives and little variation in verbs; the female authors tended towards longer or more varied line lengths with more varied adjectives and verbs.

The other interesting piece of the puzzle was that respondents who are Readers—i.e. read voraciously, and/or read equally in various genres—almost always guessed correctly. Respondents who don’t read daily, or who don’t read much fiction, had a harder time guessing.

We suppose the takeaway from this experiment is that regardless of how good a writer you are, some of your own personality still shines through. They wanted—and, quite honestly, they and we were expecting to be able—to say that those ridiculous people who maintain that males and females write dialogue differently are full of it. But LSM’s brief results speak to the contrary.

It’s possible to fool a reader, but seems to require either a large amount of proofreading (and understanding what giveaways you’re looking for), or working very hard to cultivate a particular style (Novik is well-known for her crisp dialogue, and had been using William Laurence as her main narrative character for five books at the point of this snippet). Many of these authors are wholly famous, and their writing beloved, yet they still can’t fool a reader with a watchful eye.

Nevertheless, we were intrigued by the results of this experiment, and are thinking about experiments we might implement in coming weeks. And, much like the Mythbusters, we’re thinking of ways LSM might improve this experiment. Maybe all ten books could be chosen from the same genre? Maybe they could choose ten different snippets from the same author (without telling the reader, of course)?

 

In light of these results, how do you make sure that your dialogue fits your characters? Let us know in the comments below!