Despite engaging in conversation every day, it can be a challenge to convincingly translate conversation into dialogue in our stories. Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor, joins us to chat about crafting more compelling dialogue in our writing.
Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t seem to matter what we try, the dialogue in our stories falls flat and it’s affecting sales. Our characters all sound the same and their voices don’t change regardless of what is happening in the story. Today we speak with Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor, on how to make dialogue the centerpiece of our stories.
For more info on The Dialogue Doctor, visit: https://dialoguedoctor.com/
//Draft2Digital is where you start your Indie Author Career//
Looking for your path to self-publishing success? Draft2Digital is the leading ebook publisher and distributor worldwide. We’ll convert your manuscript, distribute it online, and support you the whole way—and we won’t charge you a dime.
We take a small percentage of the royalties for each sale you make through us, so we only make money when you make money. That’s the best kind of business plan.
• Get started now: https://draft2digital.com/
• Learn the ins, the outs, and the all-arounds of indie publishing from the industry experts on the D2D Blog: https://Draft2Digital.com/blog
• Promote your books with our Universal Book Links from Books2Read: https://books2read.com
Make sure you bookmark https://D2DLive.com for links to live events, and to catch back episodes of the Self Publishing Insiders Podcast.
Jeff Elkins, Mark Lefebvre
Mark Lefebvre 00:02
Hello and welcome to Self-Publishing Insiders. My name is Mark Leslie Lefebvre. I am the Director of Business Development for Draft2Digital and I am honored to have in dialogue with me today in the virtual studio, Mr. Jeff Elkins, aka the Dialogue Doctor. Welcome, Jeff.
Jeff Elkins 00:19
Hi, everybody. Yeah, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Mark Lefebvre 00:23
Now, we had you on the show early, early on in the in the show’s release, I think, it was way back when. But I think it’s really critical for us to understand the value of dialogue. And we’re gonna get into that first. But before we get into that, what I really want to do is I want to find out what you’ve been up to as a writer lately. What’s going on?
Jeff Elkins 00:43
Well, I just published my ninth novel, 14th book. I’ve got a couple short story collections and stuff out. I have it here next to me. I always have a copy next to me. It’s on sale today for 99 cents. So you can go grab it, it was it was a tough one to write. It’s an exploration, a fictional exploration of the issues surrounding the American church. So I wrote it for all of us who like grew up in the American church and kind of feel like something is wrong, like something feels broken. So it was just kind of my exploration of that through multiple character journeys. So yeah, I published that in May, and it’s on sale today for 99 cents. It’s on sale until Wednesday of next week. So you’ve got until September 8, I think that is. September 7?
Mark Lefebvre 01:47
Oh, my God, I didn’t switch over my calendar. Hang on. Let me pause in the middle of a live show while I switch the calendar. Yeah, that’s September 7. So if you’re watching this live, you benefit from that. But if you’re listening to this in the audio feed later, I’m sorry. You may have missed this.
Jeff Elkins 02:05
It’s over. Yeah. I’m in one of those seasons. I don’t know about you, but when I write, I get a book out and then I need like, a month and a half to recover. Because for me, it’s such an emotional thing, especially a book that’s super personal like that, like popping a book out like that. And it’s the longest book I’ve ever written, it’s 160k. Yeah, it’s 160k, it’s a big journey. I’ve been told it reads very fast, which is good.
Mark Lefebvre 02:42
Oh that is really, really good. Yeah, it reads like it’s 80k.
Jeff Elkins 02:44
It does. I mean, going back to dialogue, it’s like 95% dialogue, 90% dialogue. So.
Mark Lefebvre 02:50
Oh, that’s fascinating, because one of the most valuable things about dialogue that I learned from you, is that it really moves the plot forward. But you had a really great analogy involving skeletons.
Jeff Elkins 03:02
Yeah, so if you think about dialogue, dialogue is that … So since I used that analogy, Mark, I’ve expanded it a little bit. So yeah, I find that there’s two types of writing. As I’ve worked with authors. And, you know, I started the Dialogue Doctor a little over two years ago. Since then, I’ve edited over 200 authors and done some really great study and learning on what dialogue is and how it works in a book and what it does to the reader, because that’s really the question around all of our writing. Like, when we use these tools that we have, tools like dialogue tools, prose tools, punctuation, all that kind of stuff. The question is like, what kind of journey are we taking the reader on? Like, what is this tool? What does this tool do for our story, in the way that it impacts the reader’s emotional journey through our story? So there’s kind of two types of writing, there’s dialogue and prose. Dialogue is like the skeleton of your book, right? Like, you have to have it, it’s the bones. It’s what makes the story go. And we can talk about in a second what dialogue is, but then everything else that hangs on the dialogue is kind of the meat of the story. So without the dialogue, you just have like a lump of goo on the floor, like you gotta have that foundation. But when we talk about the difference between dialogue and prose, prose is descriptions, especially if they’re in paragraph form, or summaries where you’re talking about what’s happening, talking about how somebody’s feeling, talking about some kind of theme, like, you know, ruminating on some kind of theme with the reader, doing world building in paragraph form, where you’re writing about the world you’re in, all of that kind of falls under prose. And then the other side of that is dialogue, which is the interaction between characters. And so dialogue means conversation. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be verbal. When we talk about dialogue, we’re talking about the interplay between characters in a scene. So if you think about the difference, this illustration was super helpful for me to understand the two differences between them, it kind of clicked them in my head when it happened. So I was taking my daughter to New York recently. And we were going across this bridge into Manhattan. And we could see from where we were on the bridge, we could see the whole skyline of Manhattan laid out in front of us, like the whole thing was right there. And it was, it’s beautiful. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s overwhelming, and like, look at this enormous creation that humanity has put together over centuries. Like, it’s this giant thing. And it has this experience of backing you up and taking it all in at once. Right? That’s what prose does. When you have world building, when you have descriptive paragraphs, when you have the character ruminating about what’s going on. All those kind of like paragraph chunks that you put in your book, that’s prose. And it’s like taking in the entire skyline of Manhattan at one time. We drove in, we parked, we got out, and now we’re walking around the streets. And that is an incredibly different feeling. Right? Walking on the streets, you can hear the noise of the crowd, you can smell all the smells of the city, you can hear the traffic going by, and everything is alive, right? Like there’s texture to everything. You can touch things, you can feel things, your five senses are super active. So that’s what dialogue is for a reader. So that reflective, the prose has that like reflective move, dialogue has that moment where you get into the midst of the scene, and all five of a reader’s senses are imaginatively activated as they experience the scene. Readers want that active imagination, right? So the more you can pull your book into dialogue, the faster it’s going to read, the more energies there’s going to feel. The more prose you have in your book, the heavier the book is going to get, right? Like the bigger and the harder, the more trudging it’s going to feel. And I’ve found as I’ve talked to modern readers and writers, we tend to start skimming prose after about three paragraphs. If we hit three paragraphs, we start looking forward, like, I wonder how much longer this is gonna go, right? Because we’ve been trained to consume story in a video format, right? Like for the last 30, 40 years, that’s how we’ve been taking in story. Video format has very little of that reflective storytelling. Now that gives us an advantage as a writer, because we can have a moment with the reader that video can’t have, where we connect with them on this like thematic and passionate way where we take in the skyline. We just got to be careful to use it strategically. Because if we’re using that tool all the time, the reader stops feeling like they’re a part of the story. And they start kind of looking around like okay, I took in the skyline, now what do I do? So we got to keep it in the dialogue. So we coach people in Dialogue Doctor, go write a dialogue-centric scene, which means starting your scene with just the dialogue, and then building your scene out from there. And then we train like, hey, let’s learn to put our prose in what we call the segments. So if your dialogue is topical, right, like the characters are on a topic, at the beginning and end of a topic is your segment, right? Like your segment is that conversation. You have opportunities to stick that prose at the beginning and end in a way that doesn’t interrupt the energy you’re creating with the dialogue. So being strategic like that and being like, okay, the reader is going to experience this scene, they’re gonna be in the scene on the streets of Manhattan, in New York. And then as the topic, as the theme, as whatever’s happening in the scene starts to take a breath or like take a pause, we can then jump back and take in the skyline for a couple of paragraphs and then get back into the scene. I find that modern writers that we love are really really great about this, and a lot of them just do it naturally. I think what it comes from is this deep desire to stay in the moment, like you know you gotta back up, you know you’re gonna have to do some world building, you know you’re gonna have to do this stuff, but being In the moment as much as you can is what a reader craves and longs for. So the more we can use that dialogue to keep us in the moment, the better.
Mark Lefebvre 10:08
I love that, I love that as well. I want to just pop up this comment from Matty in the comments, who said “I love the analogy of the New York City skyline versus the streets.” And I was thinking as well, it almost feels like when you’re painting a picture, and maybe not necessarily using different brushes, but you’re using different colors. And you’re using different textures, different colors, different brushes, in order to create a dynamic and exciting image or picture rather than just one big, giant broad stroke or only little, like you’re changing it up to keep the reader engaged in a way I think.
Jeff Elkins 10:46
Yeah, and I think I think the painting illustration works for those who are artists, because as an artist, when you’re painting, you really do have to focus in on those details of every brushstroke, of every pencil stroke, and get into that like, this piece of hair is going to do this on this portrait. You can’t just take a big thick brush and wipe a color across the canvas. I mean, you can, but it’s a different experience. And in that same way, prose is taking that kind of big, heavy brush and just dropping big streaks across the canvas. Whereas writing character-centric scenes that are dialogue-driven is getting into the details and creating that very detailed portrait for the reader to take in. Now, will the reader know the difference? Will the reader be like, oh my gosh, there’s too much prose. And he’s interrupting his dialogue segments, and he’s bringing up … No, what the reader is going to say is like, man, that book was a lot. If your prose is too much, the reader’s gonna be like, man, that book was a lot, or the reader is going to be like, yeah, I just couldn’t get into it. On the other hand, if you’re writing really solid dialogue, I was talking to a group of authors yesterday who just read a book that is like, a fantastic kind of wonderful dialogue, keeps you very deep in the scene. And one of the authors was like, I didn’t even care what the plot was, I was having so much fun with the characters. And that’s what we want, right? Like, yes, we want to have this great plot, but we want to have the reader into the characters.
Mark Lefebvre 12:23
And so I’m thinking a lot when you’re when you’re talking about the value of dialogue. I’m thinking when you think of a screenplay, screenplay is mostly dialogue, there’s very little stage direction, right? There’s a lot dependent upon the director and the actors, etc. But it’s really dialogue intense. And I’ve been rewatching, The West Wing lately. And part of what I’m doing, not just enjoying it, but I mean, politics doesn’t interest me. And yet, Aaron Sorkin’s scripts and the writers who worked on the show, there’s such a reveal of relationships between characters in their dialogue and how they interact with one another. And obviously, there’s a lot of walking and talking, sitting at desks. But do you leverage screenplays? Like the scripts, to help people understand? Like, not everyone’s read the book, but maybe you’ve seen the movie?
Jeff Elkins 13:17
I do look at a lot of screenplays and have really focused on Sorkin because he has, he’s known for that kind of energy-building dialogue. So one of the questions I’ve looked at with screenplays is like, what is dialogue that feels too much, feels too heavy, feels too weighty, and what is it that like creates energy in dialogue? So one of the things Sorkin does is, he keeps his utterances … So like, if you think about dialogue as exchanges, right? Like character A says something, character B says something, that’s an exchange, right? And I call it an exchange because what happens when character A speaks and then character B speaks, or dialogue doesn’t have to be vocal, right? Like it can be body language as well. But what happens in that exchange is, they’re exchanging expectations. Like, here’s what I expect is happening in the moment that we’re having this connection, and they’re exchanging emotional resonance. Like, this is what I’m feeling. This is what I’m feeling. That’s what we do in this exchange that we’re having. It’s like, these are my expectations of how this conversation is going and what’s going on. And these are my expectations of resonance and the emotions that we’re exchanging back and forth. Inside that exchange is an utterance, right? So A has an utterance, B has an utterance that makes up an exchange. What Sorkin does is, he keeps his utterances incredibly short. And characters actually interrupt each other and cut each other off all the time. But the short utterances build that energy popping back and forth. It works in a novel as well, where your character’s utterances are short. But the other thing he does is, he has very clear character voices. And that’s what you’re talking about, is like, the characters are revealed in the conversation. The character voice stems from a character’s personality. And the voice is the vocal and physical representation from that character’s personality. We call it the Dialogue Daisy, just as like a teaching illustration, where the stem of the daisy is the personality and it blossoms into this voice, which is what the reader actually engages with. The voice includes like the words and language the character uses, the character’s body language that’s specific to the character, the character’s cadence, which is like, does this character use short sentences or long sentences? Does he speak with a lot of commas? Does he speak with like, two to three sentences at once? Or is he just like, you know, more closed off than that? And then the pacing, which is how does the character speak in relation to other characters? So if you look at Sorkin’s characters, because he writes in this in this place where everybody is high professional and high energy, all of his characters have very short cadences except the president by the way, but all the other characters have these short cadences, so you get like Josh Lyman and the Rob Lowe character walking down a hallway. And they’re just like pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, and you start to get that like energy building from their dialogue. You can use that same tool in your books by keeping those cadences short. The dialogue will really start to move quickly. The reader will just like fly through a page. And that has an impact on the reader’s experience. Right? It makes the reader feel like things are moving. Again, these are all just tools we can use to manipulate the reader’s experience with our story.
Mark Lefebvre 16:45
I love that. Thank you so much.
Jeff Elkins 16:50
I feel like you’re asking a question, and I’m like, okay, I’m gonna start here, and then I’ll be over here in like 6 seconds.
Mark Lefebvre 16:54
Oh, no, no. No, that was that was perfect. The other thing I was thinking, I was remembering. When I was young. I think I was six years old when Star Wars came out. And it was it was adventure, action adventure in space, right? And then I realized that I like science fiction, or “science fiction,” if you want to use that in quotes, science adventure, space adventure. And then I think when I saw my first episode of Star Trek, I realized that that was, they’re just sitting on the starship talking. For the most part, there was very little action, except when you know, Kirk would fight or whatever. But it was very, very dialogue heavy. And it was a different kind of, more like intellectual science fiction. But when I look at it now, it seems like there’s a lot more action than I remember when I was a kid. Because when I was a kid, it was all visual. Now as an adult, it was like the interaction and the dialogue between the characters and stuff like that. Do you use television shows, and other television show examples like that, too?
Jeff Elkins 17:59
You know, it’s interesting that you say that, because I think a lot of times we assume that like, if you’re watching an action movie, or if you’re reading an action novel, then action replaces dialogue. It does in some ways, in that there’s a back and forth between characters in an action scene. But if you watch like, let’s take like the Avengers movie, which is like a supreme action movie, right? Listen to what’s happening to that action scene. They talk all the way through it. Because the way we express our emotional state is through that verbal communication with one another. So they inherently know that in writing this movie that’s going to make billions of dollars in like an Avengers movie, that they can’t have a silent fight scene, they have to be talking through it the whole way. Because we as people interpret emotions through verbal expression, or through body language and physical expression. So even when you’re writing, when I coach writers to write a fight scene, I’m like, hey, let’s write it as we would a screenplay. And let’s get what they’re saying first, and then come back and put the action around it. Because the dialogue is the skeleton. And you can build the meat around it, but you’ve got to get that skeleton down. Same thing with a romance, right? Like if you’re writing a sex scene, write the dialogue first. And then put the movements of the characters around it, because even if the dialogue is just a moan or just a couple words, whatever it is, get that dialogue in first. In addition to keeping the scene engaging and keeping the emotion strong, it’s going to help you pace out your emotions. Because it forces you to think like okay, what’s this character feeling at this second in the scene? And how do I express that emotively?
Mark Lefebvre 20:01
When you mentioned the Avengers, I was thinking the reveal of a character … and I’m going back to the comic books, but it also is true in the movies. Spider Man mocks and does a lot of things with, there’s engagement. I mean, Deadpool takes it to a whole next level. But the first character I remember doing that was Spider Man, but it was also a reveal, because this was a teenager who was very self-conscious, he was a nerd. And he puts on the mask, he hides behind the mask, but he also hides behind the snarkiness because he’s so scared. That kind of a reveal of his nervousness that he uses this to throw his enemies.
Jeff Elkins 20:39
Yeah, to like, protect himself from that. So as a writer, if you want to replicate that, what I would say you’re describing Mark is a very strong and clear character voice, right? Like, the writers of Spider Man knew, like, this is how he sounds. Which is super important, because we relate to him through how he sounds. But then they have like Captain America who sounds completely different, right? But it’s because their character voices are different. So it’s like you’re saying, Spider Man in the words and language he uses, he’s going to use a lot of jokes, often to defer attention away from himself. And to keep things light, he gets very uncomfortable when things get heavy. So he uses words that are teenage level, right? Like we don’t see him talking about, you know, the problem of government bureaucracy, right? He’s using what a teenager would talk about. So that’s like the words and language he selects. His body language is very teenager, a lot of times in scenes, you see him with, like, his hands in his pockets and slouching, or you see him like leaning against something, right? He’s very loose with his body language. His cadence, he talks a lot, especially when he’s nervous, which we call a voice modulation. So like, he pours out words, right? He’s just always talking. The Tom Holland version of Spider Man does that really well, right? Like there’s just constant chatter happening. And then the pacing, he likes to be engaged in conversation. So he’s constantly jumping in to conversations, even if he doesn’t belong, he’s constantly like, putting his two cents in. Whereas if you flip that character voice, you look like a Captain America character voice, which is the more stoic, commanding character voice. He doesn’t ask any questions. So like, the language he chooses is very declaratory. He’s making statements about how he feels. He’s not afraid, or doesn’t hesitate to ever express his direct feelings on something. So he just says things, floats ideas out there, and then waits for everybody to respond to them. His body language, he’s always standing straight, his shoulders are always back. His movements are very commanding. So he points at things a lot. And he doesn’t fiddle with things, right? Like fidgeting with things is a nervous habit for a nervous character. Captain America doesn’t fidget, right? Like he’s still, and he’s focused, and he’s big on the page. And then when you get to his cadence, he uses one to two sentences at a time, he doesn’t have the verbal diarrhea of Spider Man, right? Like he says one or two things. He says what he means to say, and then he doesn’t talk anymore. And then you get to his pacing, he listens a lot more than he speaks. So when you’re writing a Captain America type character, know that they’re gonna be early in the conversation. So in your segment where all the characters are going back and forth in these exchanges, you’re gonna get a lot of Spider Man in that segment, you’re just gonna get a little bit of Captain America, because he’s only going to enter the conversation when he absolutely has something to say. And he’s not afraid to let everybody else talk because he is this commanding presence, right? So you can see how separating out these character voices and making the character voices very different creates this texture in which we, as a writer, can start to play with the conflict between characters, the emotional engagement between characters. And if we throw one more thing in there, which you mentioned, which is voice modulation. So we have kind of our baseline voice, which is like what we sound like most of the time. I just described like, here’s what Spider Man and Captain America sound like most of the time. In moments of tragedy, Spider Man’s voice modulates. Jokes stop. Verbal diarrhea stops, he actually struggles to put together full sentences in that moment, right? So you get these deep moments of pain. It’s the modulating of the voice and the changing of the body language that communicates that emotional change that pulls the story consumer in. So in the same way, we can do that in our books by being conscious of like, okay, we’re gonna modulate this voice in this climactic moment of pain. So the commanding character suddenly questions, right? The fun-loving, self-conscious teenager is suddenly broken. But you convey, you don’t say to the reader on the page, “And now Spider Man is broken.” You modulate his voice in the conversation. When you modulate his voice in the conversation, our brains are attuned, because we talk to people all the time. Because all we’re doing when we write is we’re replicating what people see in the world, so we’re constantly interacting with people and the way that we communicate emotions on a daily basis is through our body language and the modulation of our voice. So you don’t have to tell a reader this character is sad, you can show a reader this character is sad by modulating the character voice, but what that demands up front is that you understand the character voice before you modulate it.
Mark Lefebvre 25:54
So I’m curious for your perspective of dialogue tags, and what are some of the mistakes that authors make with dialogue tags? “He asked.”
Jeff Elkins 26:07
Yes. That’s great. “He asked, hesitantly.” So I think we forget, I think we have this love-hate relationship with dialogue tags where we’re like, we feel like they could be valuable, but we’re terrified of them. So we just try to either only use them when we absolutely have to, or I’ve heard people be like, completely leave them out, never use them. And that’s like saying, I feel like that’s like looking at a carpenter who’s putting up cabinets and being like, hey, that screwdriver is tough to use. So never use it. It’s like, what if I’ve got to screw something in? You gotta use it. So that’s how dialogue tags are. So first, let’s remove the fear. They’re just a tool. All they are, they do three different things. The first thing dialogue tags do is they identify who’s speaking. So if you’re in a two person conversation, what I call a one on one conversation, you don’t need them as much. We know who’s talking, your paragraph spacing is doing that work for us, unless you’re Jose Saramago, and you don’t use any paragraph spacing or dialogue tags. But the paragraph spacing does that for us, right, like we know who’s speaking. So we don’t necessarily need dialogue tags for that first thing. But if you’re in a 3, 4, 5-person conversation, which I call a big cast conversation, you’ve got to use those dialogue tags, because otherwise the reader is going to be super confused as to who’s talking, or you’re going to weigh your conversation down with a massive amount of body language. Everybody’s going to move before they speak. And the conversation all of a sudden feels very weighty, you lose that Aaron Sorkin pop in there, characters can’t just talk. So you got to be using dialogue tags in those bigger things. The second reason you use them is to generate pacing. So if my character’s expression is like, I think that we should go to the movies tonight to see that really great show. “Aaron said, ‘I think we should go to the movies tonight to see that really great show.’” You can see how putting the dialogue tag up front slowed the pace down. So you can use that tool in order to create a thoughtful moment, right? “Aaron rubbed his chin and looked up in the sky and said, ‘I think …,’” and you can see that inset creates a little more space, makes a little more thoughtful. You can also put it in the middle of the utterance in order to create breaks or breaths in the utterance to break it up. “’I think.’ Aaron said, ‘that we should go to the movie to see that really great show.’” You can see that I’m emphasizing different parts of the utterance by dropping that tag in there, it creates a different imaginative feel right? Or if you want to keep it fast, you put it at the end. “’I think we should go to the movies to see that really great show,’ Aaron said.” That keeps it out of the way, and it’s like a throw off. So in addition to identifying who’s speaking, dialogue tags can also be used as a tool to shape the pacing of a character’s utterance. The third thing they could do is to emphasize a motion. I think the best, if you want to look at an author that does this in an amazing way, Toni Morrison uses dialogue tags to really bring out emotion. So rarely does Morrison use she said, she uses a lot of like she shouted, she cried, in a release of agony she yelled. And so using dialogue tags to emphasize the emotion that the character is experiencing is that third tool we can use them for. Can you use a tool too much? Well, yeah, sure. If you’re if you’re building a house and the only tool you’re going to use as a hammer, so you’re just walking around banging on all the walls, you’re going to have a very holy house. But you’ve got to use tools strategically. The key is to know what the tool does. This is what dialogue tags do. They identify your speaker, they create pacing in the utterance, and they enhance the emotional expression of the utterance. So I know what they do. And now you can use it strategically. You can pick that hammer up when you got to knock in a nail. I think all of our tools are that way. The key is to understand like, what does this tool do to the reader’s experience? And once we get what the tool does, we can then start playing with it.
Mark Lefebvre 30:30
And I guess related to the dialogue tags are those descriptors for the dialogue like, “he said angrily,” and stuff like that. And those are places where you may use those sparingly as well. Or you may inject that into the words and maybe pacing the way that they’re spoken, right?
Jeff Elkins 30:48
Yeah. And there’s no rules, right? Like, it’s all just whatever you want to do with it. This is an art form in the end, so there aren’t any rules of like the right and wrong way to do it. There’s just burden you place on the reader. So like, I mentioned Jose Saramago a second ago. I read his book Blindness. It’s one of my favorite books of all time, it terrified me. So scary. I walked around for weeks thinking I was gonna go white blind, all of a sudden, and get thrown in an asylum. He uses no punctuation. That’s a tool that he chose not to use. It created a burden on me as a reader, because I had to be like, oh, this tool I expect to be there is being denied to me. So now I have to read it without that tool. And that’s the experience he wanted to create for me, and I ended up loving it. Or, you know, Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road never names his main characters. Like, that’s a tool, or if he doesn’t give them a lot of backstory, those are both tools that do something for us, like giving a character a name creates a relation between us and the character. Because when we name something, it’s important. And giving backstory allows us to connect a little bit more to the character’s personality, because we come to understand who they were and what they went through to get to this place. By refusing to use those tools, he creates an experience that keeps us solely in the moment and focused on right now. And forces us to really listen to these characters to understand who they are, right? Like, he denied the reader that tool to create the reader specific experience. So as you use things like dialogue tags, you can deny the reader tools in order to force an experience. Or, you know, you can play with tools, like maybe you give one character, their voice is super expressive. So they always have that adverb or adjective attached to their dialogue tag, whereas the other characters don’t. It’s a tool you can use to set this character out, right? Or maybe you define, this character never speaks in a joyful way. This character always speaks in a joyful, expressive way. So you’re gonna use those dialogue tags to demonstrate that. If you have a thoughtful character, maybe you just put that dialogue tag, always at the front before that character speaks to create that little micro speed bump before the reader gets into that character’s voice. But again, it’s like strategically using these tools to play with what you’re doing.
Mark Lefebvre 33:16
Cool. Thank you. I am gonna start to take some questions from the live viewers. So the first question is from Lexi, and you kind of talked about this a little bit, but the question specifically is, “How do you avoid making scenes that are too dialogue heavy? Writing romance, I feel like it can be easy to accidentally create a scene that’s almost all dialogue, minimal prose.” So how do you identify or avoid making …
Jeff Elkins 33:47
Don’t avoid it. Go for it. All the way in. I’m kidding. So there is a problem in that when you’re writing very heavy dialogue, the reader loses spatial recognition, right? Like, where are they? Where are the characters in the space that they’re in? And how do they how are they physically in comparison to each other? Because a sentence said when two characters are centimeters away from each other is very different than a sentence that when two characters are across the room from each other, right? Like, that sentence feels different for the readers. So what I tell a writer is like, hey, think about dialogue, think about your scene, right? In the segment that we talked about. Think about that as like happening on the stage of the reader’s mind. You need a couple of things. We need to know what characters are in that scene. Right? Like, readers don’t like to be surprised. You go like a whole page, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “Dolly said,” where did Dolly come from? Readers don’t like that. They want to know who’s in the room with them when they’re in the room. They want to know generally what kind of room is this? We don’t need, like you might if it’s part of your voice, you might write a ton of scenery. I’m very bad at scenery. So I don’t write very much scenery. But you still need to orient the reader into, like, where are we? And then as people move around the room, and as they walk around the room, we need to know where they’re going. Because the proximity to other characters, and how they’re behaving in the room, is all part of their body language. And it paints that scene on the mind. The other thing you have to know when you come into the scene is the emotional tone, which is conveyed through the dialogue, but can also be conveyed through how you’re describing things around the characters. So I tell writers, if you can get those things in, if when you read your scene, you’re like, okay, I know who’s here, I know where we are, at least in a general way. And I also know like, this is the emotional feeling that I’m going for, then your scene should be good. When people say the dialogue is too heavy, often it’s like, I don’t know how to orient myself in this space. And characters are appearing all the time, and I don’t know where they came from. So it’s like making sure you have your core components. But if you have your core components, you’re good to go. I would say the other thing, it may be that your book is, and this is something I’m very guilty of, my books tend to be very fast-paced. Like I said, the novel that I just wrote, Inside Outside, it’s like 90% dialogue, because that’s what I enjoy. That’s what I do. I did have readers come to me, my beta readers came to me, at first it was like 98% dialogue. And my beta readers came to me and they’re like, you have to give your protagonist inner thoughts. Because he’s such a closed off character, we’re not getting his inner life in his interactions with others. So I went back and I added inner thoughts. And inner thoughts are that like, first person POV is a midpoint between that reflective prose, and in the scene, you’re pulling the out of the scene, but just a little bit, not all the way back to look at the skyline of Manhattan. You’re just pulling me out a touch so that I’m still in the streets, it’s just like, let’s have an aside over here, and then go back in. So inner thoughts, if you use too many of them, it can really feel like we’re pulling out into that skyline setting. But the key is, what I tell writers is, if you start including inner thoughts, think of them as a third character in the scene. Because it’s really a character who’s having an aside with the reader. So treat them like a character, treat their voice in the segment like a character, where you’re trying to balance out the character voices, everybody gets turns to speak, we don’t want to lose any characters. We don’t want to lose our inner thoughts, right? Like if you have a whole segment, if you’re writing a book in first person POV, and your character has a lot of inner thoughts, and all of a sudden, you have a full segment of dialogue, and there’s no inner thoughts in there, the reader is gonna be like, have they stopped thinking? Where did they go? We gotta keep that character in. And at the same time, if it’s just inner thought after inner thought after inner thought, just know that that third character, they’re really loud. They’re taking up a lot of space in the conversation? It can be part of their character. Like, again, there’s no rules. It’s just a tool, and you got to know what your tool is doing.
Mark Lefebvre 38:20
So I wanted to ask you about monologue, and this is a purely selfish question. I have a series that is written first person perspective, a very thoughtful navel gazing kind of main character, and that is his character. So there’s a lot of long monologues, and they’re like, monologues to the reader. And I like to see them as monologues to the reader as opposed to exposition. But I know that’s a challenge that I get into, but he is having conversation with himself a lot, because he spends a lot of time in his own head as a loner. So, a question about monologue in that inner dialogue and monologue with a character, and I don’t know, I know there’s the issue of, “so tell us professor.” Now I’m gonna explain the entire universe to you in my paragraph of speech.
Jeff Elkins 39:11
Yeah. So let’s break down monologue and what it is. There’s a monologue in the context of a conversation. TJ Klum does this really beautifully in his book The House on the Cerulean Sea, where his character Linus is constantly having … Now he’s not first person POV, he’s third person close. But you hear Linus’s voice all the time. And like, what’s great about the character is that his inner voice is usually the opposite of what comes outside. So it’s really necessary because what he’s thinking is like, you gotta have it in there. He treats that inner voice, when you’re in the context of a conversation or when you’re in the context of a scene, he treats that inner voice like it’s a third character. And then there’s that other form of monologue that you’re talking about, where it’s first person POV, and I’m gonna back up and I’m going to talk about what’s happening in the world. Dresden books do this a lot, like Jim Butcher is constantly backing up and giving us like a page of Dresden just pontificating on how much his life sucks. The key is to A, focus it on the now. Because that’s what the reader wants, the reader wants to be in the story. So don’t get theme heavy with it. Keep as much of your world building out of it as you can. You don’t want your character giving paragraphs of explanation about how the world works. Show us how the world works by demonstrating how that world works. What these monologues are great for though is to give us the character’s opinion on events, actions that are happening, and on how the character feels about different people and about different things. You can also kind of catch us up on backstory with it. So I tell writers like, hey, three to five paragraphs is kind of the sweet spot. If you can get it done in three to five paragraphs, fantastic. Try not to go over eight. If you’re monologuing in first person POV for eight paragraphs, the reader starts to go like, when is this going to be done? Can I skip to where you’re talking again? Can I skip to where something’s actually happening? So it’s about using that tool in a strategic way and knowing, okay, this slows the story down. This makes things heavier, it takes longer to read. Paragraphs on a page takes us longer to turn that page than the dialogue does. So makes the reader feel like this is moving slower. So making sure that you’re just aware of how much of it you’re doing. And aware that like, okay, this is going to slow the book down some. And again, that’s okay. It’s just lik, how do you want the book to feel? If you want it to be a roller coaster ride, the less of that you can do the better.
Mark Lefebvre 41:59
I love that. Thank you. I’m trying not to take mad notes while I’m supposed to be working. But I’m excited that you’ve got workshop coming up. Now we’re recording this on September 1, 2022. And you’ve got a workshop coming up. Is it on the 10th of September?
Jeff Elkins 42:17
It’s September 10, on a Saturday from noon to four. You can sign up for it on dialoguedoctor.com. In the menu, there is a button that says Masterclass. Sign up for it, there it is. It’s four hours, it’s from noon to four. And this is our like Dialogue 101 workshop. So what we’re gonna do is, we’re going to teach you like, hey, here’s how to write a dialogue-centric scene, so the dialogue is the center of your scene. So we’re gonna define all the parts of dialogue, because dialogue has three parts, vocalization, dialogue tags, and body language. We’re talking about the three parts of dialogue, what they do. We’re gonna talk about how dialogue is made up of utterances, exchanges and segments, so that you understand the components of dialogue. We’re then going to teach you how like, okay, knowing what dialogue is, and knowing what prose is in contrast, let’s write a dialogue-centric scene where you’re just getting the character utterances out. And then we take that dialogue-centric scene that we work on and we’re like, okay, now let’s turn it into a full scene. So we show you how to go from that dialogue-centric scene, which feels like a screenplay without all the formatting, to go into a full scene that reads like someone would expect a novel scene to read. And then we teach you like, okay, now that you’ve written that scene, let’s look for segments and places where we can play some prose. So the goal is to rebuild how you write, so that character voice, the character’s experience becomes the center of what the reader is doing. So you get that very character focused book, as opposed to a book that’s heavily plot focused, which are harder to engage readers with. So then, after we talk about how to write, we’re going to go into how to edit, we’re going to talk about how to self-edit your dialogue and save yourself time with editors. We’re gonna give you like, five things to look for. We’re gonna go through each of those five things we’re talking about, like, how to recognize reader burden, when you’re putting too much burden on the reader. How to recognize muddled character voices, so that you’re like, oh, these characters stop sounding the same here at some point. Yeah, so that’s the second half, the last two hours. We talk about editing tricks, and how to self-edit and what to look for when you’re editing dialogue. The goal is when you walk away from the masterclass, you have a whole new set of tools to use in your writing to kind of empower your writing to engage more with the reader.
Mark Lefebvre 44:58
I love that. Thank you. And just to remind people, especially people who are listening to this and not watching the video, you can learn more about Jeff over at dialoguedoctor.com And that’s spelled out, doctor, right not Dr.
Jeff Elkins 45:12
Yes, not Dr., Doctor. If I can add something real quick about the masterclass, it does cost money, right? It’s $249 to come. But in order to create equity in the writing community where historically there hasn’t been, if you are a person of color, you’re free. So you can go to dialoguedoctor.com, click on that masterclass button, and the instructions are in there how to notify us with no questions asked.
Mark Lefebvre 45:33
That is so amazing, I love that. I love that. That is fantastic. So dialoguedoctor.com. Again, persons of color, there’s a way you can register for that and get into that course completely for free. That is amazing. Thank you for doing that.
Jeff Elkins 45:47
Yeah. And if you can’t attend on the day, you get a recording of it when you register. So if you can’t attend on the day, after we record it on September 10, we’ll send you a recording of the whole thing. So if you can’t come on September 10, you still want to do it, you can register and you’ll get a recording at the end of it.
Mark Lefebvre 46:02
Awesome. Jeff, thank you so much. It’s always great to learn from you on dialogue, I’m gonna go check out the course and sign up for it myself. I want to remind viewers and listeners, you can bookmark D2Dlive.com. We are here live every Thursday at 1pm Eastern Time or noon central. You can check out Industry Insights over at d2d.tips/insight. You can, if you’re looking for promotions, go to D2D.tips/D2Dpromoform and sign up for promotions for awesome authors. And if you want to join the print beta, you can just log into your account click on that little print button and ask to join or go to draft2digital.com/printbeta. Lots of great information over at draft2digital.com/blog. And be sure to like, subscribe, all the wonderful things. And Jeff, thanks again so much for hanging out with me today.
Jeff Elkins 46:54
It was so much fun. Thanks Mark.
Mark Lefebvre 46:57
And goodbye everyone.