Online Writer's Conference 2003

Shades Of Romance Magazine

August 3-9, 2003















Voices In Your Head


Dar Tomlinson


Your hero and heroine are in love.  Their emotions are profound, involving intrigue--sometimes against their will--denial, disagreement, protest, acceptance, and eventually surrender. 

Or these emotions could be tangled, switched in sequence, even reversed.  But they are intense, vibrant.  How do you make them resonant?  By using language, God's gift to writers.

An author wishes to create an illusion so real the reader will forget they are reading rather than living. Dialogue can play a big part in the suspension of disbelief. 

The first sign of a new book developing somewhere on the peripheral of my mind, are the voices in my head.  An overheard conversation, something picked up from the media, or a story related by an acquaintance might have plot merits.  But when the characters begin speaking in snippets here and there, complete with mind pictures of their locale, what placed them there, sometimes what they're wearing--or not wearing--and how they're dealing with the situation at hand, they get my attention. 

I use whatever is handy, envelope, golf score card, or charge-slip copies to capture those first sentences of dialogue, giving birth to those characters.  A novel is born. 

I've learned to keep notepaper handy. Junior legal pads work well for me, distributed around the house, carried in purse, car and golf cart.  An hour spent getting showered, dressed and made up in the company of the voices can produce an impressive stack of notes; five-hours on the golf course yields an entire scene's dialogue. The people closest to me smile and wait patiently until I return to the real world.  Strangers are too confused and polite to inquire. 

Because of the uncontrived voices, these notes are converted to text with few if any changes, needing punctuation and quotation marks only.

My novel Broken, which won the Hemingway First Novel Award, is basically constructed in dialogue and brief sequels, each scene ushering in the next. Even the sequels are a form of the point of view character's interior dialogue. 

The following excerpt from the opening of BROKEN, scenes between Zac, a Hispanic shrimp fisherman, and Carron, a wealthy Anglo journalist, forwards the story by dialogue, traveling through intrigue, resistance and denial, advancing to surrender:

  God must have a hell of a sense of humor.  The first time Zac Abriendo saw Carron Fitzpatrick on the shrimp docks he didn't let himself look. Not long and hard, the way he wanted to; he knew she could be trouble. 

"Could you help me next?  I need two dozen."

Her request held no compromise.  The husky timbre of her voice surprised him, quickened his gut, but he was smart enough to turn his back on her.
"Sorry.  I'm tied up with this lady. I'll get my father to help you."  He didn't chance meeting Carron's eyes. 

  He couldn't pinpoint exactly what left him feeling vulnerable. Greedy. It's every goddamned thing about her. She's everything I never let myself want.  Gringa, my father would call her.  Rich, beautiful and white.  The quintessential Anglo. 

His conscience festered like an open wound.

When they docked the next afternoon Carron was there.    Heart hammering, Zac jumped onto the pier, abandoning his father to secure the boat.  A small crowd of customers milled.  Zac went straight to Carron.

    "Hi. Can I help you?" She nodded and smiled.

"Did you have a good---"  Her raspy voice seemed to snag.  He waited.  "---good catch?"

    "What'd you do with all the shrimp you got yesterday?" She laughed.  "Are you keeping score?"       
    The heat on his throat crept upward.  Her icy-blue eyes absorbed the reaction. 
    He looked back, too closely. "You don't want to get too much at one time.  It's not as good after it's frozen."             

"It never gets frozen at my house."  She leveled a blue gaze, her smile measuring, then indulgent.  "There seems to be a low-fat-consumer group there every night." 

    The mention of her social life irritated the hell out of him.  "Fine. How much do you want?"

    "Just enough to make sure I'll have to come back tomorrow."                                         

    He straightened, seeking her eyes. Could falling from grace be as simple as the unveiled meaning he found there?

The reader now knows Carron is the aggressor, a woman on a mission, and Zac, though reluctant, appears vulnerable. 

Note the absence of tags, such as "he or she said," which are unnecessary, even redundant, when one character is distinct from another.

Tags, though, can be utilized in other ways, such as speech patterns, while further establishing your characterization. Carron's byword is, "Mercy," while Zac's is, "Nice."  Carron's halting speech is revealed much later to have a physical basis.  However, once the reader knows Carron speaks this way, the use of ellipses and dashes is discontinued, lest they become tiresome to read. 

In my novel, FORBIDDEN QUEST, the hero is a Jamaican artist.  In this scene he's painting on the Savannah docks.  The heroine has come to the dock in search of a lost crate.

"Hey, girl.  This big box is belonging to you?"

She lowered her eyes to reason how the black man had sneaked up on her.  He wore Reeboks. Scuffed and worn, but extremely clean.

"Excuse me?"  Didn't he know he couldn't call her girl--any more than she could call him boy, in this age of political enlightenment?  "Were you speaking to me?"

He made a show of looking all around, tiptoed unnecessarily to look over her shoulder.  He shrugged elaborately, his smile innocent.  No one else here, his eyes said.

She glanced around warily, afraid, eyeing her car, trying to remember if she'd locked it, thereby preventing a swift escape.  "This is, but--  Where did you come from?"

"Jamaica."  He almost sang his answer.  His blinding smile didn't fade.  "And you?"  She ignored the question. She needed assistance, someone to help her claim the crate.  "Are you a longshoreman?" 

"I am an artiste." He indicated an easel far down the dock.  For the first time she saw pencils peeking from his pocket.  "I am drawing your box."  His melodic accent was…Creole.  No.  He'd said Jamaica.  The "t" was hard, the "a" softened nicely. 

"Drawing my box?  Whatever for?" He shrugged, smiling.  "A feeling, maybe?  Who can know a 'ting such as dat?"  Moved by his mysterious tone, she turned her back.  "I've got to get this desk delivered...tomorrow." 

"No problem, girl." He shrugged.  "I can do that."  He pronounced "can" the same way as Jack Kennedy, in all those historical documentaries her finance, Hugh, watched.

"You?"  He nodded, his smile glimmering.  "Sure, girl.  I can take your desk home with me."  Her heart hammered.  "I don't know you.  This desk cost a small fortune."

"Don' worry.  You can come, too."  Her body sucked backwards, her cheeks flamestitching.  His smile turned kind. 

"No.  No."  His palms raised.  Cream, creased with chocolate.  "I can get your box cleared through my friend who works here.  I will take it home with me.  Today.  You can come to see where. Tomorrow I deliver. If not--" Wryly, he arched one brow.  "You will know where to bring the law.  Lock me up forever.  Throw away da key." 

The Jamaican dialect was not used again in the novel, except for humor.

We've all been told repeatedly, "Show, don't tell."  Dialogue allows the reader to see a character through another character's point of view, rather than through the author's.  In the following excerpt from my novel A RISK OF RAIN, set on the PGA tour, Teddy, a secondary character, is describing the hero's ex-fiance to the heroine, Perri:

"Ms. Current Favorite showed up a few tournaments back---a regular show pony." Teddy used the industry term for the exceptionally beautiful women the players inevitably wound up with, as though that, too, was a competitive feat.  "You could tell Stephanie came to be seen, though, not to see golf."

Perri hated the weakness that allowed her to ask, "Could you?  How?"

"Silk dress.  Sandals with little straps and gold rings around her painted toes." Teddy screwed up her mouth as though she'd sucked a rotten lemon.  "Not exactly walk-the-course-to-stand-by-your-man-gear.  I hear she spent most of her time with the pregnant wives, sipping mint juleps.  She won't be around long."

  Through the speaker's point of view, the reader is introduced to and gains immense perspective on Stephanie, instead of:

Stephanie was a beautiful girl, the kind of woman the golf pros looked for.  She wore silks and delicate shoes that showed off her pretty feet. But she only came to the tournaments to show off, not to lend support.

Checkpoints for editing and polishing your dialogue
  • Does it move the story forward without wasting words?

  • Does it sound natural, uncontrived?  Would a stranger listen in?

  • Is narration, internal dialogue and dialogue well mixed?

  • Have you been true to your characters in word choice?

  • Have you not burdened the reader with unnecessary tag lines?

  • Do speech patterns or actions/mannerisms identify the speaker?

  • Are dialects and colloquialisms overused?

  • Have long, lecture-like passages been broken up with narrative, action, or facial expressions?

  • Have you used too many foreign words the reader might not understand?

  • Does all dialogue have purpose, each passage leading to the next?

  • Did you use long sentences for slow pace and short for action segments?

  • Can you read all dialogue aloud without stumbling or grimacing?

  • Did you feel the relative emotions while writing the dialogue?

Gary Provost recommended asking ourselves if a nearby stranger would try to eavesdrop on our written conversation?  If the answer is no, the dialogue should not be used.