Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Writer Wednesday - Dialog

The art of writing dialog is a tough skill to learn. We learn all the basics. We punctuate properly. We avoid excessive dialog tags. We avoid modifying our dialog tags with adverbs. We read it aloud to make sure it flows right. And we never make our characters give long speeches unless they have a damned good reason.

But still, we get told our dialog is stilted.

Joining us today as Featured Writer is Lisa Shearin, a master of witty dialog. She is the author of Magic Lost, Trouble Found, Armed and Magical and The Trouble with Demons. Her books have consistently been available on the shelves of bookstores everywhere since she was first published, and her books are notable for their laugh-out-loud dialog. It's a real treat to have here here today. She provided two excerpts from The Trouble with Demons to give us some discussion fodder. I had a really hard time choosing between them, but here it is:


Piaras wasn’t having a good day; yesterday had started off the same way and by last night, it had slid downhill into a cesspool.  Today was showing all the signs doing the exact same thing.  

There was no easy way to ask what I needed to ask.  Sure, I could just come right out and say it; it was a simple enough question, but the words just refused to come out.

“You and Katelyn like each other, right?”  Yeah, I know, it was the cowardly way in, but at least it was a related topic.

Now the kid was completely confused.  “Yes, we do.”

“A lot?”

“Yes, a lot.  Why do you ask?”

“The two of you haven’t . . . done anything about really liking each other, have you?”

Now he was confused and concerned.  “Not yet.  I . . . that is, we want to . . . we think . . . but . . .”

“But what?”

“Before I came to class, the archmagus and I had breakfast together.”

I pressed my lips together so wouldn’t snicker.  Oh, I knew what was coming.  Uncle Ryn had done the same for me.  Any boy—or a couple of years later, any man—who wanted to see me socially had to go through The Talk.  One of my hopeful suitors said going through The Talk was like being forced to walk through fire, except without the fun parts.  You tried to get through it as quickly as possible and told yourself the pain would be over soon.  To the best of my knowledge, Uncle Ryn had never actually laid hands on one of my suitors, but he’d always made it plain and clear what behavior he expected, and what actions would be taken if he was “disappointed” that the boy/man’s behavior fell short of those expectations.  Needless to say, I didn’t date all that much.

Piaras was looking at me.  “What?”

I swallowed a snort.  “Nothing.  Go on.”

Piaras glanced at the door; it was closed, but he lowered his voice anyway.  “Archmagus Valerian said he would know if Katelyn and I . . . you know.  Raine, I’d like to live long enough to graduate, or at least graduate in this form.  He can’t really turn me into a squid, can he?”

“Is that what he told you?”

“And a couple of other things.”

“He can’t do it, at least not the squid part.”

“You’re sure?”


Piaras let out a relieved breath.  “That’s good.”  His look turned suspicious.  “Why are you asking about me and Kat?”

I really didn’t want to come out and say this.  “I need to find the Scythe of Nen.  And by the way, you weren’t too far off the mark.  It is a dagger.”

“What’s it look like?”

I told him what my dad had told me.

“Something that small won’t be easy to find,” Piaras noted.

“No, it’s won’t.  And apparently a certain type of person is helpful for finding this kind of thing.”

Piaras’s eyes narrowed.  I had a sinking feeling he’d figured out where I was going with this.

“What type of person?” he asked.

I winced.  “Uh . . . a virgin type of person.” 

His lips narrowed into a thin line to match his eyes.  “And when you found out you needed a virgin, you immediately thought of me.”

“Not immediately.”

“What, so you had to wait two seconds?”

“More like five actually.  Don’t feel bad about it.”

“You think I’m the only virgin on this island!  How’s that supposed to make me feel?”

I grinned hopefully.  “Special?”

Piaras gave me a look.  You know the one.

I threw my arms up.  “Okay, I’m sure there are other virgins on this island, but I don’t have time to find them.  I was pretty sure you were qualified—”

Piaras glowered.  “As a virgin.”

I held up a hand.  “No, no.”  I was just getting myself in deeper.  “I knew you were qualified in other ways to help.  Level headed, good in a fight, that kind of qualified.”

Piaras arched an eyebrow.  “Nice try.”

I hung my head and sighed.  “Kid, just help me out here, will you?”

Silence.  I looked up.  Piaras was grinning.

“What do you need me to do?” he asked. 

I told him.

“One question,” he said when I’d finished.


“This virgin thing, does thinking about it count?  Just because I haven’t done it doesn’t mean I don’t think about it.”  He lowered his voice again.  “A lot.”


As usual, please keep your excerpts to 300 words or fewer, and please put your excerpts and your critiques in separate posts.

And let's have some fun!


Lisa Shearin said...

Whew! Good, I'm still the first one here. G'morning, Tia! Had to get the dogs & cat taken care of (plus the cat had an accident), get the hubby off to work (I'll have to pop off to the office around 8:30, but will be back online when I get there), and start a load of towel laundry (we're having guests this weekend). I have coffee and I'm ready to chat!


BTW -- I announced this on my Yahoo Group and Twitter this morning.

Sam said...

First let me say that this is one of my favourite pieces of dialogue in TTWD too! I remember reading it for the first time and then immediately going back and reading it again more savouringly (made up word!) as I do with all my fave bits in books. One thing I like so much about Lisa's books is the way her characters sound so real and so believable. They each have their own personality and it comes across in everything they say. All writers have a sort of "tone" I suppose. That tone is the part of themselves that comes across in their writing and in their characters - in a good way, this isn't meant to be a negative comment. But one thing I like so much about Lisa's characters is that they all always sound so much like themselves. There are no inconsistencies. You could read a line of dialogue and know who said it, her characters and their individual thoughts and foibles are THAT well thought out.

In this particular passage we get to see a lot more of Piaras' thoughts on the whole subject of still being all sweet and virginal than he actually says. I have to admit, right from the moment he sauntered through that door behind Garadin in MLTF I loved Piaras - I love his innocence and naivety but also his quiet strength - like Raine he's not superhuman (or rather superelf!) but that doesn't deter him when it comes to defending those he loves. I like his ability to find humour in a situation even when he's scared out of his wits, I love how's he not afraid to admit that he's scared, I love how he is often as surprised by his own abilities as everyone else. And the reason we get to see all that so clearly is because Lisa writes his dialogue so well, gives him such an honest and endearing voice.

I love the atmosphere of Lisa's dialogues in all three books. Some of the conversations are just that - an exchange of information or opinions. But so often there is an undercurrent, and her dialogue does a wonderful job of subtly showing us that undercurrent. For instance the flirting sometimes when Raine talks to Mychael. It's not overt; it's two interested parties gauging each other's interest. I love the way neither of them often say what they're really thinking. As much as, on one level, it would be lovely to see them get it together, in another way it's nice that they haven't, so far. It's fascinating to watch (with good writing I always see in my head what I'm reading on the page) them play with each other, watch their relationship develop as much through what they don't say as what they do.

I warm to very few female characters in books. I won't go into why I don't here because this is not the time or the place, but it is with that fact in mind that I was so thrilled to discover Raine because I do like her. I love her in fact! I can see a bit of me in her and a bit of all the women I love in her and that is largely because of her dialogue, both internally and externally. It's what Raine says and what she thinks that make her such a superb character to me, that makes me want very badly to see what happens to her next and where she goes and who she meets. A good plot is essential in a story but for my money good dialogue and very definite, individual "voices" for the characters are also vital. No worries here then.

Lisa Shearin said...

Wow. Thank you so much, Sam!

Lisa Shearin said...

Sam, it's so wonderful when a reader completely gets what I'm trying to do. It lets me know that after all the struggling, that I got it right.

Sam said...

You're welcome! And thank you, for so much entertainment!

Sam said...

Lol, you SO got it right! I'm in danger of sounding like a stalker here, or like someone who's ever so slightly unbalanced but sod it, I'll risk it anyway! Your books have been such a delight to me, such a find. I honestly can't remember the last time I warmed to characters as much as I have yours - and I read a lot. I think I can sum it up like this: it's obvious in your books that you care about your characters, that you LIKE them. Does that sound like it should be obvious? Because in my opinion in a lot of cases it isn't. Some people (so not naming names here! Lol!) seem to write to some sort of formula and their characters suffer for it. They have no depth, no real personality, no real believeability. Raine may be an elf. She may have magical powers (and more of them by the day, thanks to that wretched stone!!!) But she's still believable. Your readers can still relate to her. And the same goes for the others too, the fact that you obviously care about them can only enhance the stories for us readers.

Chicory said...

Wow, Sam covered things so well that I'm not sure I have anything to add! Let's see... one thing that I think makes Lisa's dialogue so good is Raine's constant asides. They give the scene contex by showing how Raine views the people around her. It would be hard not to love Piaras and feel protective of him since Raine loves him so much, and her feelings really does carry over to the audience.

Oh yeah, and this is one scene where I'm really glad I'm NOT Raine!

Lisa Shearin said...

Thank you, Sam! And no, you don't sound like a stalker. ; ) I do like my characters. All of my favorite books have had characters that felt like old friends, so I couldn't wait for that author's next book to come out so I could visit with them again. David Eddings books did that for me, and I tried to do the same with mine.

Tia Nevitt said...

Speaking of asides, I analyzed Lisa's entry, and I found only one dialog tag in the whole thing, "he noted." That's it! Other than that, it's internal commentary, as Sam and Chicory have noted.

An interesting approach! Janet Evanovich also does this to great effect.

Sam said...

Lisa, I was interested by your comment about your favourite authors books because it made me realise that in a lot of cases I read books DESPITE not liking the characters all that much! I don't hate them it's not that strong a reaction, it's more an indifference and I think that's probably worse. It's as if you read and as you're reading make allowances. The characters are too contrived (or became too contrived) or have become too blatant a Mary-Sue. There is one series of books where I am up to #17, up to date, despite being increasingly disenchanted by the lead character! But I just feel that at this point I've invested so much time and money (and in the early days emotion) that I am obligated to read to the end of the series even though it's bad for my blood pressure and my teeth!

Now you can see why Raine and Co. are such a treat!

Sam said...

Chicory, yes I hadn't thought of that, but it's true. I think the way Raine loves Piaras so much does make him all the more endearing to us, the readers.

And I wouldn't want to have been Raine for that conversation either! Although possibly I'd have liked to be Piaras even less!!!!!

Lisa Shearin said...

Thank you, ladies! I'm off to the day-job office now, and will be back online in about another 40 minutes or so.

Tia Nevitt said...

Here's another dialog segment for you guys to chew on. Tory and Julian are spies and Detective Meyer is a corrupt cop. For the timeframe, think Jane Austen. It's a fantasy.

When Detective Meyer opened the door again, he looked angry. He held a piece of paper in his hand. He looked at it and looked at me as my heart gave a leap of fear. He closed the door and turned to Julian.

"What kind of scam are you trying to pull, Mr. Crain?" he growled.

"Sir?" Julian asked.

Meyer began to read from the paper. "'An attractive young woman of twenty-two years who matches the following description: five feet four inches tall, eight and a half stone, light brown hair, brown eyes.'"

As he read, a knot of dread had built up in my stomach. Those statistics were inscribed on my identity chit.

Meyer looked up. "It continues with a more exacting description."

"Whoever she is," Julian said, "she sounds delightful."

If the situation were not so serious, I might have laughed.

"She's right beside you!"

Julian looked at me. "Well, I'll be damned."

"She is Miss Victoria Lawrence," Meyer said. "She's wanted for theft and kidnapping."

"Theft of what? Kidnapping of whom?"

"Theft of a roll of material from the Starcaster Corps and the kidnapping of the political refugee, Estelle Layfett."

"You're not making much sense, Detective Meyer. If she had kidnapped Estelle Layfett, then why did she help retrieve her?"

Meyer didn't seem to have a response. Instead, he came up to me and began to paw at my neckline. Although I shrank away from him, I did not dare resist.

Chicory said...

Lol. Tia, I love that. Julian is so very cool about the situation.

Anonymous said...

Well do I remember that talk with Piaras. I was two sentences into the excerpt when I thought, "I know which scene this is!"

Tia, I think this line--"Whoever she is," Julian said, "she sounds delightful." --was one of my favorites when I read the book.

Dialogue is so, so tricky. I'm of the opinion that it's one of the most challenging parts of writing a novel. Your dialogue has to sound real, yet cut out all of the boring, real-life chatter like "umm" and "How are you?" and "Wonderful weather we're having." It has to advance the plot and characterize, it has to fit the tone of the scene, or even help to create that mood. It must do all of these things at once sometimes. Not a tall order.

Anonymous said...

I meant to say "A tall order," not "Not a tall order." Note to self: Have coffee before commenting.

Anonymous said...

This is from my first-draft-in-progress, The Falls Elixir. This is the reader's first introduction to Mrs. Dawson, and I wanted to immediately characterize her. I'm not sure if I've achieved it or not, but I figured today would be a good day to find out.


“Well, I think it’s God’s providence,” Mrs. Dawson declared. “The woman ought be thanking Him that only her outhouse burned down—-but what a stink it caused!” She sniffed and took a sip of her lemonade, then puckered her face-—an amazing feat, considering that her face looked to be in a constant state of puckering. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Sarah! It’s too strong again!”

“Should I be putting water in it for you, Miss Margo?”

“Yes, and be quick about it. I’m parched. Careful! Don’t overfill, please!”

Sarah generally considered the word “please” to be a kind and therefore desired word to hear, but when coming from Mrs. Dawson, Sarah preferred the word to never be spoken. She had a way of twisting it, holding the “e” low in her throat and drawing it out in one long vowel movement. “Please” was not the only word she did this with. Mrs. Dawson was full of vowel movements. And full of what had gotten burned inside of Becca Statton’s outhouse as well, but none of this was Sarah’s place to point out.

“Anyhow,” Mrs. Dawson continued telling her husband, “it should be a reminder to her. I know that Widow Statton is respectable enough, but most boardinghouse ladies are prostitutes. And to be a boardinghouse owner is to put her reputation as a Christian woman up for sale, and once that happens, why, it’s only a matter of time before the fires of Hell creep right up to your doorstep.” She paused. “You should put that in your sermon next Sunday.”

Reverend Dawson lowered his newspaper. “And if no one in Helen’s Heart owns a boardinghouse, where will all the visitors and vagrants sleep?”

At last, Sarah thought. Reverend Dawson said something that makes sense.

Lisa Shearin said...

Superwench, loved it. Great characterization.

Sam said...

Hi Superwench

Well as I'm first to comment here I'll be brave and hope not to offend you! First impression of Mrs Dawson is that she's one of those pious and holier-than-thou women of a certain age. The sort of woman who is rarely happy and even more rarely satisfied, someone who turns her own failings on everyone else. The sort of woman who finds fault with others with the express hope that in pointing out such faults she will look better by comparison. The sort of woman who claims to be God-fearing & "decent" but who is constantly hoping for, if not actively plotting, the downfall of others.

Oh, and the line about "vowel movements" cracked me up!

Chicory said...

Superwench, I like the line `Mrs. Dawson was full of vowel movements.' The description of the way she uses `please' as a complaint really characterizes her.

Sam said...

Lol, second to comment then! Lisa beat me to it while I was faffing...

Tia Nevitt said...

Vowel movements--that phrase just cracked me up. Poor Sarah! You've engaged my sympathy for her. And I can just hear an Irish accent in the way Sarah speaks. Am I right? "Should I be putting water in it for you?"

Chicory said...

Okay, here's a bit of dialogue from my Twelve Dancing Princesses rewrite. (I like it because you can actually recognize the fairytale coming through. This might be the only place that actually happens.)

Nicolette shrieked again.

I spun around angrily. "What's wrong now?"

"You mean you didn't hear it?" Charmaine demanded.

"Hear what?"

The girls gathered in a protective cluster around Nicolette, who was crying soundlessly. Her tears dripped off her chin. Guilt twisted through me, along with an urgent desire to shake her.

"It sounded like thunder," Charmaine said.

"Then maybe it was thunder." I turned away.

"Down here?" Hilaire asked skeptically.

"It wasn't thunder." Nicolette drew in a gasping breath. "it was a snapping noise, like an animal in the woods."

We all glanced at the eerie glimmer of trees.

"There aren't any animals," Raison said. "The leaves are all gold. There'd be nothing for them to eat."

"I thought it sounded more like a firecracker going off," Paige said, "or maybe something breaking."

Hilaire rolled her eyes.

"Firecrackers don't break." Charmaine repositioned her glasses. "They ignite, and they don't do that spontaneously."

Raison lowered her voice to a spooky whisper. "Maybe something's out there, stalking us.

Nicolette gave a little gasp, and Raison snickered.

"I didn't hear anything," I said firmly. I gave Raison a warning glare to make her behave. "Let's go."

Anonymous said...

Thank you all! I'm relieved to hear that it works. Sam, you totally nailed it--that's Mrs. Dawson to a tee.

No, Sarah isn't Irish--though I was deep into my Immigrant Moon revisions when I wrote this scene, so I had Irish accents on the brain. Sarah is a Missouri slave. So far, she's my favorite character in the book.

Chicory, I like the sense of dread you've built up in this scene through the dialogue, but I don't think I was able to get the full effect because there were so many characters to keep track of. I mean, if I were well into the book and already knew the characters, that might not be a problem, but since I'm reading just a snippet and am running across all these names, it kind of took away from my getting a full sense of the dread. But still, I liked it.

Tia Nevitt said...

Katie, I so totally know what you mean about having one character's personality on the brain while trying to write another character. While I was writing my spy fantasy, I kept re-watching Jane Austen movies to keep the manners of speech fresh in my mind--especially the more playful movies, like Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Northanger Abbey.

Chicory, I was left wondering what exactly the sound was. Everyone seems to have heard something different, from as loud as a firecracker to as soft as a footfall, but the narrator doesn't seem to have heard anything at all.

Chicory said...

Superwench, I sort of realized the amount of characters was a problem when I had the snippet half typed out. Part of the reason I wrote this scene was to get a handle on the heroine's five younger sisters. (The danger of trying to retell a fairytale with TWELVE princess as title characters- even if you cut it back to six.)

Tia, the sound was that of a golden branch being broken off by the guy in the cloak of invisibility who is shadowing them. Sorry- I guess this snippet isn't very clear out of context.

Lisa Shearin said...

I've come up for air from working and am back. Sorry about the "radio silence."

Chicory said...

Hey, welcome back. :)

Tia Nevitt said...

No problem, Lisa.

While you were gone, the topic came up of one project affecting the voice of another. For a while, I had two projects going on, one an ancient-world fantasy, and the other a regency fantasy. I found myself watching movies like Gladiator or Emma to help me switch moods from one to the other. I don't think it really affected my voice--Warrior Queen Abriel didn't suddenly sound like a prim British maiden--but there was a definite switching of gears involved to get from one to the other.

Do you have any other projects that threaten to "pollute" your Raine voice?

Lisa Shearin said...

Not at the moment. Though in future books, I'd like to stick with first person POV, but with another character's voice. Getting into their head and switching Raine's voice for theirs is gonna be a challenge. But hey, it's all about growing as a writer. ; )

Tia Nevitt said...

I admire your focus. I have many stories stuffed in my head, and they are all vastly different: Christian, mystery, historical, romance--you name it. Plus the two fantasies I've already written, and which I still love to tweak between queries.

Lisa Shearin said...

LOL. It's not focus so much as the only ideas I have right now are in Raine's world.

Rose Works Jewelry said...

I loved this piece of dialogue!

Lisa Shearin said...

Thank you, Rose!

A. Grey said...

Oh vexing day! I will have to leave comments and such tomorrow...

Tia Nevitt said...

We've all had those days, A! I know you were looking forward to chatting with Lisa, so I feel for you! May tomorrow be a better day!

Lisa Shearin said...

Hi A. Grey, you can email me and chat anytime.

Tia Nevitt said...

After examining Lisa's excerpt and looking over my own work, I'm thinking that I'm putting too many pauses into my dialog. For example, here's one of my dialog segments:

"Mr. Bradburn is going to have some carriage trouble on his way home." He stuffed the rag in his pocket, careless of the stains that it might leave on his trousers.

"To what end," I said, "did you engineer this future mishap?"

There's no need for the "I said" in the second paragraph.

I think the reason I do this is because I can feel the rhythm of the conversation in my head, and I'm trying to duplicate it as I write. But upon reread, the pauses don't always sound natural.

Which, I guess, proves the value of a reread! It helps that I haven't read it in six months, so it's all reasonably fresh.

Lisa Shearin said...

I've found that there's nothing like setting a project aside and coming at it with a fresh perspective later.

Tia Nevitt said...

Oh, definitely! How long of a rest can you give your novels when a deadline looms? I'm thinking your "fresh perspective" must come after you get the editor's revisions? What then, do you call her and say, "I want to revise this as well"? Or do you just do it?

Chicory said...

With me, `fresh perspective' sometimes equals a story that is just a distant cousin to the original. Deadlines probably keep that from being so much a problem.

A. Grey said...

The merry-go-round of life has tossed me clean off. Hopefully I'll get back on board by tomorrow afternoon and be able to catch up, respond to what's been written... :)