Monday, January 26, 2009


by Jean Henry Mead

Dialogue is my forte. I enjoy fleshing out characters through inner monologues as well as conversations with other characters. Real people rarely speak in complete sentences unless they’re giving a speech. Perfect grammar in dialogue is usually an indication that the writer is an amateur, unless, of course, the speaker is an English professor. That reminds me of an online critique group I joined years ago on AOL. One of the first critiques I received was, “You need to clean up your characters’ grammar.” My southern, uneducated character would have suspended belief if he had said:

“Good morning, darling. I would prefer a cup of tea with my breakfast rather than the usual roasted blend.”

Instead, he said, “Grab me a cuppa java, will ya, Babe. I’ll have a bowl a grits with my hen fruit.”

Elmore Leonard is a master at writing dialogue. His characters’ conversations ring true and rarely will you find a complete sentence among them. In my latest novel, A Village Shattered, I have a lot of short dialogue to move the plot forward, such as a conversation between my protagonists, Dana Logan and Sarah Cafferty shortly after they smell a strange odor in their murdered friend's house:

“She’s allergic to perfume.”
“That’s right, she was.”
“Kinda smelled like Harold.”
“That horse liniment he wears?”
“Harold’s bursitis gave him away.”
“How many seniors use arthritic rubs?”
Dana answered the question herself. “Nearly everyone.”

Short dialogue is not only easier to read, it conveys tension and conflict, which are not the same. Tension occurs whenever two people speak, although they may agree. It’s like the energy between charged particles, while conflict is akin to boxers sparing in the ring. By the end of the scene, someone is bound to win the argument, and novels thrive on conflict.

Make every word of dialogue count. Carefully craft what your characters say in the least amount of words and make sure those words are filled with conflict and tension as rhythmically pleasing as possible. Then read your finished dialogue aloud. If you stumble over the words, they need rewriting.

Avoid phonetically written dialogue in the style of Mark Twain. If you’re unfamiliar with a dialect, don’t attempt to write it. A good rule of thumb is: if it slows the reader down, it’s poorly written. An example of dialogue to avoid is from Huckleberry Finn:

“Balum he tuck de money en when he wuz in church, he hea de preacher say dat whoever gie to de po’ len to de Lord, en boun’ to git his money back a hunnurd fold.”

Better to write: “Balum done put all his money in the collection plate. He hear the preacher say whoever gives to the poor is lendin’ to the Lord. And he’s bound to git his money back a hunnurd fold.”

A little dialect goes a long way.


Chester Campbell said...

Good commentary on dialogue, Jean. I like the short, punchy style. You have to use longer chunks when a character is explaining something, but most dialog should be kept short.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree, Chester. I wonder how Ben is doing?

Beth Terrell said...

Dialogue is one of my favorites also, Jean. Thank you for the insights.