Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fastest Way to Improve Your Novel


Over the years, after looking at countless manuscripts at writers' conferences, I've come to the conclusion that there is one thing that can sink or elevate a manuscript right from the jump.

That thing is dialogue.

If it is flat, sodden, unremarkable and (worst of all) sounds the same when coming out of different characters, there's a letdown. Readers may not analyze it that way, but will feel it subconsciously. The dialogue becomes one of those "speed bumps" that lessens reading pleasure.

You know who really notices? Agents and editors. To save time, most of them will turn immediately to the first chapter of a proposal, to see if the writer can write. Dialogue is one way they can tell.

If your dialogue is crisp, filled with tension, and unique to the characters, the industry pro immediately gains confidence in your ability as a writer.

Which kind of makes dialogue important, don't you think?

And that's why I've written this book:

It is available as an ebook for $2.99 at:

For those of you who like writing books in print (so you can highlight physical pages) I'm working on that version now.

In this book I've tried to pull together everything I've learned and taught about writing dialogue. The nice thing is that the techniques do not have to be housed in the blubber of irrelevant text, war stories, rants, and veiled self-promotion. I've always preferred reading––and teaching––nuts and bolts, techniques that can be easily understood and immediately put to work.

We start out with a definition of dialogue. I like what the noted playwright and screenwriter John Howard Lawson said: "Dialogue is a compression and extension of action."

Knowing just that much will go a long way toward making sure you don't write irrelevant talk.

The book covers the essentials of dialogue, like tension and story weaving. There are abundant tools you can utilize right away, like the voice journal and the parent/adult/child method for instant conflict.

And something I haven't seen anywhere else. I've put in a section on all the punctuation rules for dialogue in fiction. This can be used as a simple reference guide when you're unsure how to render dialogue in your manuscript. Like, does the punctuation always go inside the quote mark? (Yes). Is there always punctuation? (Yes). What about semi-colons in dialogue? (Maybe you can guess what I have to say about that!)

And I've included some great examples from novels and film. Like this nugget from Charles Webb's novel The Graduate (basis for the classic Dustin Hoffman movie). Here young Benjamin Braddock is at the hotel desk, getting a room to begin his affair with Mrs. Robinson. He is quite sure that everyone in the hotel will find out what he's up to. Notice how much inner tension is rendered by the dialogue alone.

"Yes sir?" the clerk said.
"A room. I'd like a room, please."
"A single room or a double room," the clerk said.
"A single," Benjamin said. "Just for myself, please."
The clerk pushed the large book across the counter at him. "Will you sign the register, please?" There was a pen on the counter beside the book. Benjamin picked it up and quickly wrote down his name. Then he stopped and continued to stare at the name he had written as the clerk slowly pulled the register back to his side.
"Is anything wrong, sir?"
"What? No. Nothing."
"Very good, sir," the clerk said. "We have a single room on the fifth floor. Twelve dollars. Would that be suitable?"
"Yes," Benjamin said, nodding. "That would be suitable." He reached for his wallet.
"You can pay when you check out, sir."
"Oh," Benjamin said. "Right. Excuse me."
The clerk's hand went under the counter and brought up a key. "Do you have any luggage?" he said.
"Do you have any luggage?"
"Luggage?" Benjamin said. "Yes. Yes I do."
"Where is it?"
"Where is your luggage?"
"Well it's in the car," Benjamin said. He pointed across the lobby. "It's out there in the car."
"Very good, sir," the clerk said. He held the key up in the air and looked around the lobby. "I'll have a porter bring it in."
"Oh no," Benjamin said.
"I mean I—I'd rather not go to the trouble of bringing it all in. I just have a toothbrush. I can get it myself. If that's all right."
"Of course."
Benjamin reached for the key.
"I'll have a porter show you the room."
"Oh," Benjamin said, withdrawing his hand. "Well actually I'd just as soon find it myself. I just have the toothbrush to carry up and I think I can handle it myself."
"Whatever you say, sir."

To which I can only say, "Go thou and do likewise." And I hope my book will help you along the way.

Speaking of dialogue in your own fiction, what do you have to say? Who writes some of your favorite dialogue?


  1. Thanks for the alert. Got it downloaded and look forward to reading. Distinct dialogue isn't easy. Especially if you're writing characters who are similar in many ways--maybe ethnically, economically, socially, etc. And I confess, I'm not the most careful observer of dialogue patterns in real life, unless it's something very unique.

    This should be a good guide for improving dialogue. Looking forward to it, and to the punctuation review, which never hurts!

    BK Jackson

    1. BK, in the book I advocate the Voice Journal as a method for finding that uniqueness. I think you'll like it. Enjoy.

  2. Dialogue masters: PG Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett.

    1. The great Wodehouse! Thanks for including him in the discussion, Karen.

    2. I nearly broke my neck with the vigorous double nod of agreement.

      In my head I read Jim's dialogue above in the voices of Jeeves & Wooster.

  3. I have quite a few fav dialogue authors, but the first ones that come to mind are: Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard, Robert Crais.

    In YA: John Green, Cassandra Clare, Suzanne Collins.

    A good test of dialogue, for me, is to read only the conversation as if it were a script. No other context. If the lines bore me or sound like casual conversation, then the dialogue needs work or there's too much riding on the narrative. A good scene needs to have both: solid supporting narrative and distinctive dialogue.

    Thanks, Jim. Have a good Sunday.

    1. Right on, Jordan. Sometimes I'll write a scene all in dialogue for that purpose, to make sure it works on its own, then add the context later.

    2. Great way to get it right, from the start. I used to do the same, because I didn't have much time on lunch breaks to write, but it became a teaching tool. Good suggestion.

  4. I've read half of your book. It's really very helpful. I'm happy to hear that it's coming out in paper back. I like to have my reference books in hard copy to highlight, underline, and dog ear.

    One up and coming author, whose handling of dialogue I like, is Steven James. I like a lot of other things he does with thrillers as well. He'd make a great addition to all the outstanding authors on this blog, if you are ever looking for a new member.

    Thanks for another great post, as always. Sunday mornings are my favorite teaching moment.

    1. Hopefully in about a month for the paper version, Steve.

  5. Two of my favorite masters of dialogue:

    Robert Parker, not only in his Spenser novels but the way he handled taut, almost laconic dialogue in his Cole and Hitch novels, beginning with "Appaloosa."

    Connie Willis, the masterful writer of award winning science fiction novels like "Blackout," "Doomsday Book", and numerous short stories. Willis has a gift for indirect dialogue and threading two conversations at once, where both speakers are saying something different, and often not fully hearing the other. She has an equally great gift for humorous dialogue.

    1. Thanks, Dale. I'm not familiar with Willis but your remark makes me want to check her out.

  6. Love The Graduate example.

    You know what I found interesting about the hotel scene you included? The script duplicated the book's version almost word for word. Which tells me Webb must've been doing something right in his novel.

    1. Yes indeed. The movie lifts great chunks of the dialogue practically verbatim. Another movie that does that is The Maltese Falcon. I include several examples from that masterpiece in the book.

  7. Elmore Leonard. Besides his wonderfully offbeat characters, he can really bring the dialogue.

    I have this possibly heretical idea that Leonard's plots weren't always so great. Sometimes, but sometimes not. But, his characters and dialogue sell it every time.

    1. I agree. He was a master at differentiation among the characters.

  8. One of the best techniques for dialogue I learned reading Sol Stein's "How to Grow a Novel". I don't have the book handy, so I don't remember exactly what he called it, but basically he said to give the two people having the conversation a "different script". One person is trying to talk about an upcoming charity drive, and maybe the other person is subtly trying to get out of going to said charity drive. Both characters think they're talking about the same thing. Makes for a lot of subtext and sideways talking.

    I downloaded your dialogue book a few days ago, and it's chock full of gems. I love your suggestions and concrete examples. I'm also glad you have the same opinion on semi colons in dialogue as I do. I know a writer who insisted on using them, and I keep telling her no one ever talks in a way that makes it sound like there's a semi-colon needed. If it's the end of a sentence, use a period for crying out loud.

    Next time it comes up, I'll just show her your book. ;)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Elizabeth. Keep punching those semis!

  9. The book was great, as are all of your writing books. I thought I had a handle on dialogue, but I learned just how much I didn't know! Thanks for your teaching!

    1. Dave, I greatly appreciate that. Glad it's helped.

  10. When dialogue is handled well a book really comes to life. Thanks for the post, Jim. I'm sure your book on dialogue is great!

    1. You're so right, Clare. Great dialogue is a delight to read.

  11. I've snagged the book and look forward to reading it. I feel 100% certain I won't be disappointed!

    I'm a big fan of snappy dialogue and can always count on Janet Evanovich for a healthy dose.

    I've read several Nelson DeMille books that made me want to give him a high five, and the dialogue his MCs have with themselves may be my favorite part of his books.

    1. I love 100% certainty! Yes, Evanovich and DeMille, two great adds.

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  13. Another James Scott Bell craft book...I'm so glad! I swear, I tell everyone about Plot & Structure (my favorite) and Self Pub Attack (also amazing).

    Love this example. I can actually visualize Hoffman delivering those lines.

    My character stutters, so I read several fiction books about how to write a stutter. It was a great learning experience.

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  15. Fillii: Basil was about to make a comment to your post about deeyalohgooey but the bell rang and he went to answer it and...

    Boffin: It's not pronounced deeyalogooey.

    Fillii: But that's how it's spelled.

    Gnilli: Yeah, Fillii's got himself a point there Boffin.

    Boffin: I know these things. It is pronounced 'dialogue' as in 'dye a log'.

    Fillii: Now that's just silly, who would want to make coloured logs, and what does that have to do with writing stories?

    Gnillii: Maybe Berthold can clear this up, he knows several strange words and tongues.

    Boffin: Berthold!

    Berthold: Mmph cmmmung, jghush mumt.

    Fillii: What did he say?

    Berthold: Ahhh….uuurrrrrpp!! … sorry had a mouthful of bacon samwich. What can I do for you?

    Boffin: Read this on the screen, how do you pronounce that word?

    Berthold: 你應該只得到吉姆的書,如何寫耀眼的對話......也許詞庫

    Fillii: Up my what?

    Berthold: Click the link to read and learn boys.

    Hey!! What are you guys doing on my laptop!?

    Fillii: Quick hit send! Hit sen….

    1. I think a book of inner dialogue, taking place exclusively in Basil's head, would be an international bestseller.

  16. I'm really enjoying your book, HOW TO WRITE DAZZLING DIALOGUE, Jim. I'll be recommending it to several of my clients! And that dialogue example at the end, from The Graduate, is just priceless! Thanks for reminding me of it! :-)

  17. Lisa Alther in Kinflicks handles both dialogue and internal dialogue with a deft hand. Some of the blackest humor ever. At the very end, the main character has talked herself into killing herself and keeps failing. She takes it as a sign and talks herself into living.

    My main girl spends some time alone at the beginning and end, so I gave her a dog. Simon the chihuahua is a great straight-man.

    I love writing dialogue and rely on it very heavily (probably too much.) I think it is my strong point.

    Can't wait to read the new guide. Terri

    1. Now if the chihuahua could talk....but I suppose that would be a different genre. It does sound like you have fun with dialogue, Terri, and that always helps.

  18. JSB--sounds like a fine book that will be of real use to new writers. I explain bad dialogue this way: the writer is so preoccupied with plot that his characters are just puppets getting the work out. Or, the writer lacks empathy. If he truly cares about his characters, can see, smell and hear them, they will reflect that individuality in what they say and how they say it. At least that's my take.

  19. Okay... you have got my attention. I ordered it.