So far I’ve talked about using dialect and using specific words to help improve dialogue in writing. Today, let’s take a look at how you can control the pacing of your story by changing the tempo of your dialogue.

You’ve no doubt encountered this technique time and again as you read, but it may have been so subtle that you didn’t realize what was happening. I encourage you to pay attention to the way dialogue can affect a story’s pacing from now on so you can learn to use it yourself.

Just like you can speed up the pace of your narratives by using shorter sentences, quick-flowing words, and strong verbs instead of adjectives; or slow down the pace by adding more description and longer sentences, you can do the same with dialogue. Think about that last mystery or suspense novel you read. When the author wanted to pull you to the edge of your seat and get your heart racing, what kind of words and sentences were employed? If there was dialogue, what form did it take?

If you’re writing a scene that is showing conflict between characters or if you need them to have a sense of urgency, you don’t want to drag out their dialogue with unnecessary words and elaborate sentences. Every word should be important and should immediately get to the point. Often with fast-paced dialogue, you will also omit the speaking tags (“he said,” “she exclaimed,” etc.) because that only adds to slowing down the pace for the reader. Once you’ve identified in what order the characters are speaking, you can lose the tags and allow the characters to answer each other as quickly as possible. To help speed up the pace, shorten your sentences to the bare minimum needed for clarity, and be sure your characters don’t get hung up with stammering speech or “filler” words. Think of their dialogue as a tennis match  with a fast-paced volley!

Likewise, if you are trying to introduce characters or set a scene, or just slow down your story’s pace for whatever reason, you can adjust your dialogue accordingly to achieve this effect. Now, your sentences can be longer and more embellished, and your characters can have their share of “ums” and “ers” here and there.  And, add your tags back in so the conversation isn’t as rushed.

As a writer you are in complete control of how fast or slow your story flows. If you don’t like the pace–maybe you feel a certain scene is really dragging its heels–change it through dialogue. Sometimes even just the presence of dialogue can serve to speed up or slow down a story. Dialogue may not always be the answer, but it’s definitely an area that should be considered when trying to “fix” scene problems.

I hope that some of my suggestions throughout this three-part post have helped a little in your dialogue creation!

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Welcome back to Part 2 of “3 Simple Ways to Improve Dialogue.” In my last post, I talked about the use of dialect to help differentiate characters and make them realistic. Today I’m going to look at how the specific words you choose for your characters can help them come to life.

Think for a minute about books you’ve read whose characters stay with you long after you’ve finished the book. What is it about them that stays in your memory? And, conversely, why do some characters make no impact on you whatsoever? There are possibly many answers for this, but I would argue that one of the biggest reasons is simply how they speak—the words they use that showcase their personalities.

Consider the people you know well—members of your family, co-workers, close friends—and how they speak, to help illustrate my point. More than likely, if you asked each member of your family or several close friends to describe the exact same incident, you would get extremely different descriptions. This is because their unique personalities show through their words.

When developing characters, be sure to use words that precisely fit the personalities you want to present to your reader. This is one of many reasons why developing character sketches of each character before you start writing is so important. You need to know before writing a scene if your character would say “ridonculous” or “utterly absurd.”

Along with specific word choices, also consider the characters’ verbosity in conservations. As a great example of this, I will use my two sons. One, a 16-year-old, acts like he is being charged a fee for every word he uses, and his favorite response to most any question is simply “Good.”

Me: How was school?

Conner: Good.

Me: How did you math test go?

Conner: Good.

Me: Are you hungry?

Conner: I’m good.

You get the idea. Perhaps you have one of those at home yourself! My 8-year-old however, will, as the saying goes, tell you how to build a clock if you ask him the time. If I were to ask him about his math test, he would give me a precise recount of each problem and whether or not he was able to solve it.

If I were to write a scene using my sons as the characters, you could immediately tell one from the other based on the amount of words I had each use and the complexity of their sentences—never mind that the 8-year-old talks circles around his older brother!

If you had two characters with completely different personalities (one an extreme introvert and the other a boisterous extrovert) burst into a scene, how could your reader immediately tell them apart, simply based on their dialogue? What if both characters were in positions of authority and they had to reprimand an employee for lackluster performance? How would their dialogue be different?

Imagine, for example, an insecure person who must confront a store clerk about overcharging her on her purchase. She would probably use “soft” qualifying phrases, like maybe, I think, or a little bit (in describing the overcharge). Now picture a bold, no-nonsense person in the same situation. Her word choice may include direct phrases, such as you did, refund, and overcharge. Both people may be quite polite, but just by the words they use, the reader can learn something about their personalities.

In order to best write dialogue to match your characters’ personalities, keep these steps in mind:

1) develop thorough character sketches before writing so you can write as if you know your characters intimately;

2) determine the type of words and wordiness your character will use based on personality, and keep it consistent from scene to scene. If you are to deviate from their normal dialogue, make it purposeful, as in demonstrating a change in that character’s behavior; and

3) read your scenes aloud to ensure the characters sound natural. If you need to, think of people you know who have similar personalities as your characters. Then ask yourself what words they would use to respond to the situations or conversations your characters are in.

In my next post, I’ll discuss how you can use dialogue to help control the pacing of your story.

Have you ever read dialogue that seemed flat, uninteresting, or unbelievable? Or, worse, have you ever written dialogue like this? Dialogue can easily make or break a story by helping to develop characters, control the plot’s pace, and provide readers with necessary information through “showing, not telling.”

Throughout the next 3 posts, I’d like to share some simple ways to improve your dialogue to help make your story the best it can be. Today, let’s talk about the use of dialect.

Dialect is not to be confused with accents, although accents may help to accentuate dialect. Dialect is rather the specific nuances of how people talk and pronounce their words, depending on where they are from. Proper use of dialect can go a long way in making your dialogue believable because it helps create consistency for each character and serves to immediately differentiate your characters from each other.

I’m originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and people there ask “Please?” when they don’t understand what you said—as opposed to “Excuse me?” or “What did you say?” I thought this was perfectly normal until I moved out of state. Someone would say something to me that I didn’t hear correctly, I’d response with “Please?” and they’d either look at me like I was from Mars, or they’d respond with “Please, what?”

I soon came to discover that this was a uniquely Cincinnati thing. Others who realized this would ask me—after I said “Please?” to them—“Are you from Cincinnati?” It seems it’s probably the only place in the world where people do this!

That’s an example of dialect. And, if you use it well, it will help your characters come to life.

If an American travels overseas, people may say, “Oh, you’re from America,” based on how that person speaks. But what does an American sound like? In America, we know that being from New Jersey sounds very different than being from Lubbock, Texas, and different still than being from  Minnesota.

Dialect includes pronunciation (Bostonians leaving “r”s off the ends of their words, Southerners adding a drawl to their vowels), unique phrasing or words assimilated into their speech (“Please?” in Cincinnati, “eh?” in Canada), and particular, identifying speech patterns (think “Valley Girl” from the 80’s in California).

When trying to write authentic dialect that captures the intricacies of speech from various areas, it’s best to be around people from that area for a period of time. Don’t always rely on the dialect you hear in the movies. When possible, go to where your character is from and spend time just observing and listening to the natives who live there.

Bring a recorder if possible so you can hear the speech again and again. Also be on the lookout for mannerisms and how people conduct themselves when in conversation. Do you notice in certain geographical areas that people are more boisterous in their conversations, maybe more apt to interrupt each other, or maybe women tend to be more submissive when in conversation with a group of men in certain places.

When I was growing up, I had a friend who was part of a large, Italian family. When they all got together around the dinner table, you’d be lucky to get two words into their conversations. And you’d think they were all mad at each other, the way the volume escalated, accompanied by flailing arms and intense facial expressions. But that wasn’t the case. That was simply their natural method of conversation. That family dinner table held no place for introverts!

All of these kinds of nuances help create full, rich, and believable dialogue that helps your reader instantly tell your characters apart.

If you can’t go to an area to listen to dialect, do as much research as possible before you start writing. It will make a huge difference in your dialogue if you can capture the heart of an area’s dialect.

When one of your characters burst into a scene and begins talking, your reader should know immediately who that person is long before you identify him or her. By doing your homework, this will happen.

Next time, I’ll discuss how the words you choose for your characters can enhance their dialogue and make it sound more natural.