Book club and dialog

Some friends have a book club, and my book, Everybody Lies, was their March selection. Last Wednesday, I was invited to join their discussion.

Overall, they liked it! This group of women ranging from 30 to 70 is a good focus group for my target audience.

Some specifics:

Liked the setting. Liked learning about Alaska, and environmental politics.

Liked the use of Candace’s journals.

Grabbed and held their interest. Thought the ending was satisfying. Didn’t guess who did it too early.

And liked my ability with dialog, something I attribute to being a journalist. I have spent years paying attention to how people talk, and to translating that to the written word. I was reminded of that with a book I’m reading. It’s all right, but it feels pedantic — not a positive thing for a thriller. And I realized that it has a lot to do the dialog. In spite of how we are taught to write, people don’t speak in complete sentences. They use contractions. They hesitate, stumble around, blurt out things. And dialog needs to feel like that, but cleaned up just a bit.

Part of making dialog sound right is seeing punctuation as a communication tool not a set of rules that you have to get correct. By choosing punctuation to pace the flow of words, we make our characters sound right. Hyphens, ellipses, commas and semi colons all indicate pauses. They can help the writer make the flow sound natural. The rules for formal English need not apply.

We also need to make characters sound different. Not every person speaks in the same way, or uses the same vocabulary. In writing Trust No One, I came to realize (with the comments of one beta reader) that people of my generation swear, but people of his generation — and that of the protagonist — tend to use Anglo-Saxon words instead. Where I might say hell, they are more likely to say shit. I think that has a lot to do with my generation’s early years in church followed by rebellion. The younger generation didn’t have the rebellion phase and the words don’t have the same impact for them. So I went back through and edited cuss words, and the dialog improved immediately.

Regional accents are as much about rhythm as word choice. I don’t believe in writing in dialect — I find it demeaning, and often reflects the bias of the writer — but you can make someone sound southern (for instance) by simply adding in the direct object that northerners often leave out. I’m gong to tell you all a story, instead of I’m going to tell a story.

One other mistake I’m seeing in this book is the same mistake beginning reporters make: quoting non-essential information. We don’t need quotes in news stories about what time the meeting is and we don’t need it in dialog either. Choosing what goes in dialog and what doesn’t is also a challenge. But dialog isn’t the place for info dumps. “yes, as you know, Susan, my least favorite sister, is coming to town, tonight.”

I worry that I use too much dialog. The book club didn’t think so. I hope they’re right.

Trust No One is going live tomorrow! More on that later.

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