Talk the Talk


Quick Tip Tuesday

By R.S. Belcher

There is a quote from Harrison Ford about the making of the original Star Wars film trilogy. Ford said in regards to the lines he and the other actors had to deliver, “George, you can type this sh**, but you can’t say it.” As something of a response to the often-heard critique of the dialogue for his characters being wooden, Lucas once said of meeting his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, “Before I met him, I couldn’t write a word, now I’m the king of wooden dialogue.”
All of us have seen a movie, or television show, or read a novel where the words coming out of the characters mouths seems…wrong, not realistic, and in that moment that magical suspension of disbelief pops like a soap bubble.
Stephen King, in his excellent book, On Writing, compares dialogue to a musical instrument, when it’s in tune you know it and when it’s not you really, really know it. King’s advice on how to write authentic-sounding dialogue was really common sense. Pay attention to how the people around you talk and then be honest in presenting that.
Writing, for me, has always had that rhythm to it, like music, and while I doubt I can carry a tune with a forklift, I do think my dialogue has improved over the years of writing. I’m going to throw out a few things I’ve taken to heart along the way. I hope at least one of them will help.

1. Avoid adverbs, he said, enthusiastically: This goes back to the old adage of show, not tell. Using adverbs to tell your reader how a line of dialogue was delivered shows a lack of confidence in your ability to convey a feeling or motivation with the words and actions of the character alone. In the really-real world, all we have to judge someone on is their words and their actions. Trust your readers, trust your editors, trust yourself. If a piece of dialogue comes off confusing without an adverb, you may have a deeper issue to look at in the construction of that piece of the story.

2. Dialogue tags, Rod said: There is a rhythm to language, to talking to one another, and when we write dialogue we are attempting to create a telepathic simulation of that language, of the imaginary character’s voice, in the mind of the reader. But we still must remember the rules of the road, so to speak, and make sure we tag the dialogue in some way so the poor reader can keep up with who is saying what. It’s tricky because a poorly-placed (or timed, if you will) tag can break that total immersion for the reader who, up until that moment, was eavesdropping on a conversation between other people, not reading a book. Too few tags lead to confusion for the reader and also pulls them out of the story as they often have to backtrack to understand who is saying what.
What’s the right way to tag? Try to mix it up so you’re not using the same tags over and over. Listen for “right-sounding” places for a tag in the rhythm of the character’s speech. I am very guilty of this, still. I catch myself writing long conversations and not tagging a lot of the dialogue. Since you, the writer, know who’s saying what, it should be obvious to everyone right? No. My editors are working to break me of this bad habit. Please, not the Bore Worms again.

3. People watch, people listen: Get out if you don’t often. If you do, take a second to listen to folks you meet in your day-to-day life. Go gobble up some raw material for your characters. Listen to how people talk, what they say, what they don’t, in everyday conversation. It’s field work and it will give you a much broader platelet of faces, personalities, dialects, and examples of realistic human conversation.

4. As you know, Rod said, this is the part of the post where we discuss avoiding info dump: Yep, I do this too, but I think I’ve made pretty good progress in weaving the information I want to impart to the reader into dialogue without my characters sounding like scientists from 1950s atomic horror movies, or like clueless clods on a late-night infomercial (“Tell me more about this amazing product…” Number five will help a huge amount with that nagging info-dump you’ve tried scrubbing, scouring, but just can’t get rid of.

5. Read it back, out loud: The test of solid or wooden dialogue is how it sounds to the actual ears. So don’t just read back your dialogue, say it out loud, read it to an editor, a friend, or your partner. You’d be surprised how often this simple test will help you see the gaps in what you’re writing. Good dialogue sounds authentic and the tags and descriptors you throw in enhance the feeling of realism… or they disrupt the rhythm of the conversation.

I hope some of these ideas help you, they have sure helped me. Please feel free to add any other tips or advice in the comments below. Thanks for taking the time to read me today. It’s appreciated.

One last shameless bit of self-promotion. My new book, Brotherhood of the Wheel, is out March first, from Tor Books.
I’m honored to be a guest at Mysticon in Roanoke Virginia, February 26-28, please come by and say Hi. I’ll be doing readings and signing books all weekend.

R.S. (Rod) Belcher is an award-winning newspaper and magazine editor and reporter.
Rod has been a private investigator, a DJ, a comic book store owner and has degrees in criminal law, psychology and justice, and risk administration, from Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s done Masters work in Forensic Science at The George Washington University and worked with the Occult Crime Taskforce for the Virginia General Assembly.
The Grand Prize winner of the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Anthology contest, Rod’s short story “Orphans” was published in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds 9 published by Simon and Schuster in 2006. It was his first professional fiction sale.
Rod’s first novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, was published by Tor Books in 2013. The sequel, The Shotgun Arcana, was published in 2014 and the third book in the Golgotha series—The Queen of Swords is currently in production. His novel, Nightwise, was released in August, 2015, and his latest book, The Brotherhood of the Wheel will be published by Tor in March of 2016. Sequels to both books are forthcoming.
He lives in Roanoke Virginia with his children, Jonathan and Emily.

Contact Rod at:

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A press conference at the Hotel Roanoke and Conference in Roanoke, Va announces its new affiliation with Curio, a Hilton Worldwide brand that features more "boutique" hotels. Hilton President and C.E.O. Christopher J. Nassetta, Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands, PhD, Dianna Vaughan, Senior Vice President and Global Head of Curio, Roanoke Mayor David Bowers and General Manager of The Hotel Roanoke Gary Walton speak at the event. The Hotel Roanoke is co-owned by Virginia Tech and The City of Roanoke. (David Hungate for The Hotel Roanoke)




3 comments to Talk the Talk

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I am a huge, super-fan of tips 2 and 5 above so thank you for including them!

    The other thing that I like to remember is indirect attribution with actions (e.g., “I’m sorry about that.” Jerry ducked his head.) It helps with the ‘showing’ aspect of the writing, and it can be used to replace some of your ‘said’s. But! this is like #2. *Sprinkle* this in, don’t turn your characters into constant fidgets.

  • Razziecat

    These are all good tips, although as far as “real life” conversations go, it’s a good idea not to just transcribe word-for-word convos. People use a lot of “um, ah, like, you know” in actual conversation and nobody wants to read that in a story, unless it’s a way to distinguish one particular character’s personality (and even then, doing it in every line of dialog for that person can get annoying real fast).

    The other thing I’d like to mention is the absence of contractions. Nothing pulls me out of a story faster than a character who NEVER uses them! Even in a high fantasy story, contractions help to keep characters from sounding stuffy and wooden, or sounding like they aren’t native speakers of the language (assuming they are meant to be). I think this may be where reading the dialog aloud could probably help a lot. 😀