Karen McCombie on Dialogue

Today I’m thrilled to welcome Karen McCombie, author of the best selling Ally’s World series, who has some wonderful things to say about getting your characters talking. In celebration of her guest post, I’m also giving away a copy of ‘Dialogue’ by Gloria Kempton. All you have to is subscribe to the blog. I’ll put the names in a hat then pull one out on 1st August and announce the winner.

Anyhow, enough of competitions, let’s settle down and listen to what Karen has to say:

The trouble with talking…

I’m reading a bestseller at the moment. I like the setting; I can feel the cold. The characters; they’re pretty good (except for the one who’s a walking cliché, but hey). The story; well, it zips along nicely, all pleasantly engaging and then CLUNK!!

What’s gone wrong? It’s seems the author has a problem with talking. And she’s not the only one.

So many writers become unstuck with dialogue. They can write fantastic description, believable inner dialogue and then along come some speaky bits and they make them sound as natural as one of those online translations; “I go you with to the house?” Well, perhaps not thatbad. But it’s a major problem in a book. An author can have a particular style of writing, from poetic to brusque, and if they do it well, you find yourself under their spell and inhabiting their story’s world with them.

But the spell is immediately broken when you hit stilted dialogue. If the characters sound like two robots talking to each other*, as a reader, you’re going to blink and lose your thread, aware that you are, in fact, just on the stuffy Tube/in your lukewarm bath/in your bed with the cat gently snoring.

I find it fascinating that so many writers seem to hit a brick wall with the spoken word. After all, we all talk – lots – every day. Someone much cleverer than me will probably have an answer to why this problem of translating the spoken word to the page exists, but in the meantime, all I can do is make a small suggestion that might help anyone struggling to make their characters sound human.

Here’s the deal:

• Write what you want your character to say.

• Then read it out loud, as if you’re sitting in an actors’ read-through for a play.

• If it doesn’t sound natural, ad-lib.

• Keep running through your ‘lines’ till they sound like a genuine person is genuinely saying them. (Note: don’t do this if you’re writing in a library, café or other public place, or you may get strange looks/asked to leave/arrested for causing a disturbance.)

Still tricky? Feeling self-conscious? Try to fix your mind on someone (a friend/colleague/bloke off the telly) who is a rough approximation of your character. Now imagine them saying the words. Make this fantasy amalgam of a person repeat the words in your head till they sound completely believable.

Good luck if you’re wrestling with clunky dialogue. But then again, it might be mypet peeve, but it hasn’t stopped a gazillion readers loving the bestseller I’m currently wincing my way through…

* The one exception, of course, is if you ARE writing a dialogue for robots.

Karen McCombie is a best-selling children’s author who has many speaky bits in her books. These include newest hit series for younger readers, ‘You, Me and Thing’ and current novel for 10+ readers ‘Life According to Alice B. Lovely’.

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