Angie Azur is a YA Sci-fi Writer.
Writer for PALEO Magazine.
Former Intern at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
SCBWI & COWG Member.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Intern advice on: REAL DIALOGUE

Dialogue people! Lets talk dialogue. So you've got a great hook, a descent query letter, and interesting synopsis. I'm reading…

Then I get to your first dialogue line and it's over. Dialogue is one of the most important things in a manuscript. It's how we, the reader, get to really know your character. And it's how an agent determines your writing ability, or lack of it, quickly.

Good dialogue should move your story forward. It should show the mood, and/or emotion of your character. It is also an amazing way to show tension between two characters. Or tension around a specific situation. With all that dialogue should do, it should not knock the reader out of the story. It should not be an info dump. It should flow.

People don't talk like robots. They don't talk in full sentences. They don't stay on subject. And they don't say boring things just to get information to the reader.

So what's a writer to do about dialogue? Eavesdrop! Sit your butt in a chair somewhere and listen in on people talking. Take notes. 

1. Pay attention to subject changes

  • how was it done?
  • were there any pauses?
  • did someone notice something then switch subjects?
  • what is the body language?

2. Note individual ticks
  • does someone say um or like a lot?
  • is anyone fiddling with something while they talk?
  • where is their attention? 

3. Age differences
  • speech changes when there is an age difference in the ones talking
  • how does a 40-something speak with an 80-something as opposed to a 10-year-old?
  • does the body language change with an age change in companion?

4. Dialect
  • where are you? 
  • different parts of the country have different words for certain things. 
  • social status also changes dialect
  • note what the people are wearing - do you think they are upper class? working class? lower class? This may not feel PC but it matters when you want to write true characters in certain areas.
  • time also matters - what year is it? words change over time - cool-daddy-o is now cool.

5. Accents
  • these can be over the top or subtle.
  • depends on where you are in the country or world
  • also depends on social status again - someone who has had voice lessons will not have such a southern drawl.

Below are some real people conversations that I've overheard. I keep a notebook with quotes. I have labels too. 
  • age range
  • sex
  • where
  • time
  • date
  • dress


1. "You think, oh…I already know about security." - (woman in airport 50's dressed in a suit)

2. "Everyone else is flying coach, so yeah." - (same woman)

3. "And right now they are…in the winter?"
"Oh lovely, oh how lovely."
"Yeah, England's very expensive. A friends' daughter got married there a year ago. And says its very expensive, yeah."

4. "So tired, thank you sweetheart, appreciate that." - (40's - female to husband)

5. "So there could be X opportunities out there for me." - (30's to friend)
"Laid off, there yeah go. Same difference by the way." - (40's male at olive garden - east coast)

6. "I'm just wild. I mean maybe I'll have two dinners tonight." - (20 something in coffee shop on cell phone)

7. "This espresso is yuck! It's garbage." - (20 something coffee shop to friend)

So from the examples you can get a little sense of how real people talk. They switch subjects rapidly. 

Sometimes it makes no sense unless you are the two people in the conversation and have context. Your characters will have context, so you can allow them to jump subjects often without explanation.

And notice there are no run ons. They are quick sentences without a lot of fluff. People who know each other don't have much explaining to do when they talk. Most of your characters will have known each other - so you can't use dialogue to inform the reader of too much back story. 

Use dialogue wisely!

Remember: Real people do weird things. They don't speak properly. Their minds jump around. They notice something else in the middle of a thought and end it, abruptly. 

Get your dialogue right, because it's very sad when I get very excited about an idea, keep reading and then have to put it down, and move on to the next manuscript because your dialogue does not ring true.

You can do it!

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