Good Morning! I am on family vacation, so I will not be checking in. However, I'm hoping that my wonderful partner's in crime, Liz, Kari and Cassy will be checking in for comments. If time permits in Melissa's busy schedule she'll check for questions also.
Believable Dialogue: “Hello, how are you?” The woman said. “I am fine, thank you.” The man said. What? That’s not believable dialogue, don’t you talk like this all the time? Discuss how to make your characters alive for your readers through dialogue.
Mary: Welcome Melissa Mayhue, thank you for agreeing to give me an interview on the topic of Believable Dialogue. First, will you please tell us a little about yourself and your publishing history and/or background?
Melissa: Mary, thank you so much for having me here for a visit! A little about me… I write paranormal / Time Travel / Scottish Highlanders with a sprinkle of Faeries kind of books for Pocket. I have six books currently available in my award winning Daughters of the Glen series. The next two will be released in March and April, 2011.
Mary: Do you have a trick or a secret that keeps your dialogue natural instead of stilted?
Melissa: Yes. It’s a two-part thing and even though it sounds goofy, I’ll share it. I call them Sponge Listening and Barbie™ Doll Time.
Sponge Listening – I’m sure everyone has heard of Active Listening – the practice of repeating back or specifically responding to what someone is saying to you to make sure you’re really understanding what they’re saying. Well, as writers, we need something BEYOND Active Listening. I like to think of it as SPONGE Listening.
Find yourself a good spot to People-Listen. [Similar to People-watching, but with different intent – and it doesn’t make you nosey or guilty of eavesdropping. You’re doing this for a higher purpose! It’s a work assignment]. Your goal is to soak up the rhythm and flow of conversations, the order of words, the type of words, the accents and inflections people use in real life. That’s the rhythm and flow you want to capture in your writing.
Barbie™ Doll Time – As an only child, one of my favorite ways to express my active imagination was through play. I recognize now that I was creating romance stories with my Barbie™ long before I ever read one! My dolls overcame great obstacles in the pursuit of lovely clothing and Mr. Right [Ken™]. And, in that process, they talked to each other, just like the characters in the movies I watched.
Let yourself be that little girl again, making up your world. Visualize the scene you’re writing as if you’re actually in the thick of the action. Listen to the dialogue in your head. Say it out loud. Does that sound like what that character would say? The way he would say it? Does it have that same rhythm and flow you heard in real conversations?
As an example, in my narrative I might write: I would not consider that action.
But if I were the character actually saying that to someone, I’d probably say something more along the lines of: There’s no way I’d do that. Or even: No way!
This second piece is by far the more important part. When you actually PUT yourself into the moment of your story, try to feel what your characters are feeling, that’s when you’ll find your best dialogue.
Mary: What is the best advice you can give someone on writing dialogue?
Melissa: Read what you’ve written out loud and really listen as you’re reading. In the beginning, you might want to consider reading it out loud to someone else, maybe a critique partner. There’s nothing guaranteed to make you LISTEN to your words harder than knowing someone else is listening to those words!
If you don’t hear that natural rhythm in your lines of dialogue, stop and think of how YOU would say that same line if you were IN that situation. This takes you back to what I said before – get inside your characters and their story. Feel their feelings. The dialogue will come much more naturally from that spot. I can’t emphasize the importance of this piece enough.
Mary: I try to write with action dialogue tags when I need to help the reader keep track of who is saying what to make scenes come alive for the reader. When might he said or she said, be more appropriate?
Melissa: Okay, Mary… I’ll admit I cheated and skipped ahead to take a peek at your next question! But my answer to this really is going to encompass both questions.
I like action dialogue tags, too. I think it helps to identify speakers and, more important sometimes, it breaks up non-stop strings of conversation. The ‘he said/she said’ could easily be inserted occasionally to alter the flow of the writing – to keep it from getting boring – or to keep it from looking like your characters are running around all over the scene doing stuff when they should be talking!
While we’re on the ‘he said/she said’ thing, let’s go ahead and acknowledge that there are two opposing camps on this particular area of writing dialogue. One says you should ONLY use the ‘he said / she said’ tags, whereas the other line of thought is that you should use variety : he mumbled/muttered/swore…whatever.
The first group reasons that the tag ‘he said’ becomes virtually invisible to a reader and is therefore superior to using other words for ‘said.’ Obviously, the second group disagrees.
I think this disagreement goes to the heart of author voice. We each write in our own way. We each write what we like to read.
As for me? I see every ‘said’ in everything I read. Maybe it’s just me, but even back in my reader days, long before I ever seriously picked up pencil to write, I noticed the ‘saids’… and they drove me crazy.
I like some variety in what I read, so, naturally, I put some variety in what I write. In fact, I dislike ‘said’ so much, I personally go out of my way NOT to use it, though I do occasionally defer to my Copy Editor and stick in a ‘said’ or two.
Mary: Does your agent see your work before your editor? And if so, have you ever had her give suggestions on dialogue that may help your work find a home? What was it?
Melissa: No. I send a copy of my finished manuscript to my agent at the same time I send one to my editor. I know that my editor will always have suggestions and ideas about the overall progress of the story or even specific scenes or characters, but she’s never commented on dialogue.
As for my agent, our relationship is that she handles all the business stuff and I do the writing. I know there are agents out there who do work with the author to tweak and change, but that wasn’t what I was looking for in an agent relationship.
Mary: I’ve heard that an agent and/or editor will sometimes thumb through a manuscript to see how much dialogue there is. Do you believe agents and/or editors do this? And do you believe the amount really counts in their decisions?
Melissa: I haven’t heard this before, but in a way, it makes sense.
If I think about my own experience as a reader, a book that has page after page of unbroken narrative probably isn’t going to hold my interest any more than one which has page after page of unbroken dialogue.
The best romance stories I’ve ever read, the ones that stick with me long after I’ve closed the books, are a balance of both dialogue and narrative.
Mary: What was the best advice you’ve ever received about dialogue?
Melissa: Not to make the dialogue TOO lifelike. Go back to that Sponge-Listening thing. Whether you’re listening to people talk at the table next to you in a restaurant or to a political commentator on television, one of the things that occurs in real life are those stammering, humming, repetitive noise-making sounds that humans use to fill in the space when our brains are trying to catch up with our mouths.
Fortunately for us as writers, we get to make our characters smarter and better than that by leaving out those noisy pauses! We might spend twenty minutes coming up with the perfect line for our bigger-than-life hero to utter, but he gets to BE that bigger-than-life hero in the book because the readers never see that pause!
Mary: Is there anything about believable dialogue that hasn’t been asked you’d like to share with us?
Melissa: Only to reiterate the importance of putting yourself into the moment with your characters – feeling their emotions and motivations will allow that next line of dialogue to roll off your tongue or, more important, to roll off your fingers onto that keyboard!
Thank you so much, Mary, for allowing me to share some of my writing process with your readers. I’m open to any questions that anyone has.
I’d also like to invite everyone to stop by my website at www.MelissaMayhue.com to see more of my writing if they’re interested. I even have an excerpts from all six books available for readers to check out!
Thank you, Melissa Mayhue giving your precious time to answer my questions.