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Don’t Get in the Way of Your Characters’ Dialogue

Biff Barnes

“Readers tend to skip along through novels,” said Elmore Leonard, “but, they won’t skip dialogue.”

That’s particularly true if you write crisp, clipped, rhythmic dialogue like Leonard does in his quirky, hardboiled, crime and suspense novels. Let’s look at some advice from the master on some ways to improve the dialogue you write.

Courtesy of festivo under Creative Commons

Leonard acknowledges the influence of jazz on his own writing and says, “Try to get a rhythm” when writing dialogue.

Part of maintaining a rhythm is avoiding anything that interrupts it. Let’s look at some easy ways to do that.

Avoid the info dump. Leonard says, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” When people are having a conversation they don’t tell extended stories, make a report on something or deliver a lecture. If your characters do, you’re probably trying to use dialogue to mask exposition. Find another way to get that information, usually about backstory, into the book, maybe by breaking it up into chunks that appear in different scenes. By cutting these extended speeches the rhythm in you dialogue will improve and your readers will thank you.

Attributions should only identify the person speaking. Leonard says,” Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.’” If the dialogue is effective, the way the character is speaking will be evident from what she says. The context of the scene and the words she uses will indicate whether the character is shouting or whispering. It will also make adverbs unnecessary. If a passage reads like it needs descriptive words to convey the speaker’s mood, before you add them, look at how you might strengthen the dialogue itself.

Be careful with dialect. Have you skipped over parts of a book because a particular character speaks in a dialect so hard to follow that you decide it’s not worth it to try? I have. Leonard advises, “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”

Characters may be from particular ethnic groups or subcultures which have their own ways of speaking. How do you convey that unique manner of speaking to your reader without making the dialogue almost impenetrable?  

Becca Puglisi at The Bookshelf Muse offered some excellent advice in a recent post, Dontcha Know How Ter Write Dialects, Y’all? She offers an example of a wonderful technique used by Maggie Stiefvater in The Raven Boys. Stiefvater provided a simple description of the way her character spoke. “The voice was careful, masculine, and local; the vowels had all the edges sanded off.” Puglisi says, “…Steifvater doesn't go into detail describing the individual sounds of the character's speech, the phonetics, how the sentences are put together. She succinctly tells how the words sound, then writes them the normal way, and the reader's brain fills in the rest. In this particular case, the story takes place in Virginia. If you're familiar with the way Virginians talk, then the "local" reference will immediately clue you in to how the speaker sounds. And if you're unfamiliar with the accent, you get a good feel for it with the description she gives of the vowels.” 

The key thing to recognize in each of the suggestions above is that they remove things you are saying as an author and let your reader focus on what your characters are saying to each other.

For more advice watch Elmore Leonard On Writing on YouTube.