Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Why Writers Should Read Part 3

Today's topic: Dialogue Fluidity

If you missed parts 1 and 2 click here.

I can't help but start with a duh statement, which I'd like to take credit for but it probably has been said by some famous person like Jane Austen: The more I read, the more I learn how to write. 

The epiphany struck me as I finished my challenge book for this post. (Kudos to all of you who finished a book during the last two weeks including my fab accountability partners: Jeanne T, Jodi Janz,  Amy Jane Helmericks, and Beth Voght) Jeanne went to Beth's book launch last Saturday!

My challenge book, thrust upon me by office coworkers who insisted I read it next, was The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks. I had read some of his previous works and didn't like them, I'm ducking to miss tomatoes. This book, however, had a gold mine which infused today's concept into my jello brain.

Dialogue is expected to move a story along, but dialogue fluidity is an essential and expected component for successful books. Sure there are other essentials like solid plots, lovable characters (including the bad guy who readers love to hate), ect. However, when dialogue flows like soft butter on bread, readers crave more, spread the word to their friends, and share slices of quotable lines.

How can we make our dialogue fluid?

1. The set up: Oddly enough, this is the absolute key component. If the reader knows where the conversation takes place, at least minimal knowledge of the characters, and what they are doing at the time most dialogue tags can be eliminated. Sandwich the dialogue between descriptive paragraphs.

For example: By page 92 of The Lucky One, the reader already knows Zeus is a dog, Ben is a boy and he is talking with Thibault, owner of the dog. Ben is meeting Zeus.

     Zeus trotted toward Ben, stick in his mouth, then dropped it at Ben's feet. He sniffed Ben, took a step closer, and allowed Ben to pet him.
     "He knows my name?"
     "Now he does."
     "Probably. Now that he's smelled you."
     "How can he learn it so fast?"
     "He just does. He's used to learning things quickly."
     Zeus sidled closer and licked Ben's face, then retreated, his gaze flickering from Ben to the stick and back again.
Do you see the sandwich? One simple paragraph to communicate the scene: a dog, a boy, a stick, outside, and the dog's owner. The dialogue moves the story forward letting the reader step into Ben's shoes as he meets a lovable dog. Another simple paragraph to reminder the reader who is who and what they are doing.

2. Unnecessary Tags: Each spoken voice does not need a tag and creative tags are definitely not needed for each one, either! Imagine the above dialogue with unnecessary tags:

     Ben asked, "He knows my name?"
     "Now he does." Thibault replied.
     "Forever?" Ben wondered.
     Thibault smiled. "Probably. Now that he's smelled you."
     "How can he learn it so fast?" Ben asked
     "He just does. He's used to learning things quickly," Thibault answered.

Clunky. Like wading through a bog after reading the first version, right? To step your work up a huge notch, look for unnecessary dialogue tags. Before deleting them. Make sure the dialogue is clearly sandwiched between set up paragraphs. The reader needs to know where the characters are, a minimal background, and what they are doing at the time of the dialogue.

3. Avoid Tics: A judge labeled my dialogue tags "tics". My armadillo writer's skin felt that wound. When the wound healed I understood what she/he meant.  Replacing dialogue tags with synonymous movement phrases is like an unnecessary dialogue tag and paints characters as having tics:

     Ben looked from Zeus to Thibault. "He knows my name?"
     "Now he does." Thibault nodded.
     "Forever?" Ben's eyes grew wide.
     Thibault smiled and folded his arms "Probably. Now that he's smelled you."
     "How can he learn it so fast?" Ben shuffled his feat through the leaves.
     Thibault rake his hands through his hair. "He just does. He's used to learning things quickly." 

Do the characters seriously have to move whenever they speak? Yech. So not needed after reading the first version. This form of dialogue tag slows the reader's movement through the story. Its 2:00am, the reader has to be at work tomorrow. She's willing to stay up to 5am if the story compels her to keep reading.

4. Make sense: Read dialogue passages out loud and preferably with either a second person or your schizophrenic partner. (I tend to use the second by changing voices, moving around my work area, you probably don't want to see me then). What seems to make sense in a first draft or an edited version on paper/screen, may not if read out loud.

One disclaimer. This does not mean a periodic "he said, she said" or character movement is not allowed. A well placed dialogue tag is always welcomed:)

Once again I exceeded my time. Your challenge, read a book in two weeks. Look for dialogue passages. Did the author communicated the setting, characters, and what they were doing first? Did it have unnecessary tags? Did the passage avoid tics? 

Can any of these tips help your WIP?

What did you learn from the book you read for the last challenge? (btw you didn't have to finish to answer:) )

Who will be my accountability partner these next two weeks? email me at

Photos courtesy of

This blog post is by Mary Vee
Mary lives in Montana with her husband and loves to hear from her three college kids. She writes contemporary Christian fiction and loves to pen missionary and Bible adventure stories.

Come Step into Someone Else's World with Mary's writing

To learn more about Mary, visit her blog
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Cynthia Toney said...

Good blog, helpful tips!

Unknown said...

Mary, what a helpful blog!!!! I knew about not using dialogue tags, but seeing the difference between ex. 1 and ex. 2 really drove home to me how much they slow down a story. Also, I appreciated your "sandwich" concept. Great stuff here!

For the last book I read, I looked at secondary characters, and I saw how they built up the pillars of the story, holding it in a solid place, it that makes sense. I looked at things you shared last time and saw how they added to and enhanced the MC's stories.

I'm in, by the way, for reading in the next two weeks. :)

Unknown said...

Great blog, Mary! I loved your examples...practical and helpful. (Um, I'm not really a Nicholas Sparks fan either, so I'm ducking tomatoes with you.)

One of the most recent books I read was Susan May Warren's Baroness. I actually ended up making a list of what I loved about that story, craft-related things I want to learn to do better in my own writing.

Lindsay Harrel said...

I definitely agree that reading others' work makes me a better writer. I was a reader before I dreamed of writing, so it makes sense. :)

Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Mary,

Great post! I loved the 'tic' part. I think I'm guilty of this too. By avoiding the dialogue tags and not wanting to have the dreaded 'talking head syndrome', I've moved to character tics!! LOL.

Will definitely have to revisit that!


Angie Dicken said...

Wonderful, Mary. And I am cringing as I read. My characters are crazy moving, observing, shifting, thinking, tic-driven speakers! AAAAHHH! I will think about this as I continue with my wip.

Casey said...

I loved how you took the same dialogue and played with three times. You can really see where Nicholas really worked with his dialogue and made it character specific. You could totally hear which character was speaking without the tags. Great examples. :-))

Becky Doughty said...

Well, poop. Now I have to go back and look at all my dialogue. Why? Because this post made SO MUCH SENSE and I think I have a classic case of "tag-itis", that's why!

Great post, Mary!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks. So nice to see you here today:)

Jeanne T,
I'm so glad you are willing to be my accountability partner again. Sure had fun these last two weeks.

It was nice to see your reactions to flat (secondary) characters in the book you read. Can't wait to see what you find about dialogue fluidity.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

I liked the bit about speakers not needing to move every line-- I have a draft guilty of this, coming directly after a critique-set where several people complained they couldn't tell who was speaking.

I'm still trying to tell the difference between too much and not enough.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Great idea about making the list of things learned while reading. I too did that but used post its and stuck my thought to each page. Either way we both profited :)

Sounds like you have a nice library to draw from when writing. Kudos:)

Mary Vee Writer said...

I am totally with you. Good grief I fix one problem and create another! Hopefully I can move from tics to sandwiches:)

My characters were too. Couldn't understand why my work didn't flow UNTIL I found a good example. Many have tried to teach the basics, but it took an example to sear the idea into my head. :)

Mary Vee Writer said...

Yeah, I thought so too. I learned so much from a good example :)

So glad you stopped by today. BTW I have to go back and rework my... ahem..not so perfect dialogue. Its that practice what you preach thing.

Joanne Sher said...

Oh boy, Mary. I need to go to the vet. WAY too many "tics" in MY writing! I need at least three baths to get rid of the AMAZING number I have!

This is a GREAT post - thanks so much!

Mary Vee Writer said...

Try the sandwich idea.

I also have noted, but didn't include today that the dialogue between sandwich paras doesn't go on for pages. Thats where the reading out loud thing comes into play. If you loose track who is speaking, its too long.

ALSO another point I didn't include is the crystal clear voice of the individual character helps tons. In the sample, we readers can easily see which is a man (Thibault) and which is the boy (Ben) based on what they chose and how they chose to say it.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Too awesome. Seriously! I counted it progress to move to the tic problem. Once I erradicate those buggers, I'll feast on my sandwich,:)

Ashley Clark said...

Great post, Mary! I love this concept. I try to find a really great book to read each time I'm working on a new mss, because it really does make such a difference in helping push me to the next level in my own writing.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Thanks. Care to let us know which books have helped you and or how you've been helped?