SPS-288: How to Write Engaging Dialogue – with Jeff Elkins
Humans are tribal animals, and, as Jeff Elkins points out in this interview, one way we connect with those in our tribe is through dialogue. Consequently, dialogue is what’s going to to pull readers into your story, and keep them there.
- How an unexpected lay-off kickstarted Jeff’s writing career
- Why dialogue in a novel is different than the way we talk in real life
- And how it also serves a similar purpose to the one in our real lives
- How do authors go about finding a character’s voice
- Why dialogue matters to keep readers turning pages
- Tips for revising dialogue to improve a book
Resources mentioned in this episode:
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
VIDEO LESSON: Jeff has shared a video lesson with SPS listeners. You can find that here.
HANDOUT: Get the free Character Wheel Chart at Dialogue Doctor
MERCH: Are you a ligneous beetle or a yawning hippopotamus? Get your SPF hoodies and t-shirts in the brand new SPF Store.
SPS-288: How to Write Engaging Dialogue - with Jeff Elkins
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show ...
Jeff Elkins: Wow! I'm surprised we don't talk more about this, because it is such a critical thing we can do, in order to pull the reader into this journey we want to take them on.
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more game keepers. No more barriers. No one standing between you and your readers. Do you want to make a living from your writing?
Join indie bestseller, Mark Dawson, and first time author, James Blatch, as they shine a light on the secretes of self-publishing success.
Speaker 1: This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello, and welcome. It is the Self-Publishing Show, with me, James Blatch ...
Mark Dawson: ... and me, Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Hello Mark Dawson, how are you? Have you had a lovely week, since we spoke, last week?
Mark Dawson: Well, we're recording this in the past, so I will have been on holiday, and you will have been on holiday as well. So, who knows, hopefully ... In fact, we'll have been back a week, so we'll have forgotten about our holidays and we'll be back into work mode again. And we'll probably want another holiday.
James Blatch: We might still be drunk from England winning the Euros, three weeks ago, four weeks ago, whenever that'll be? It hasn't happened yet, but it might have happened by the time this goes out. Because we're time-travelling now.
Mark Dawson: Yeah. And you just put the kibosh on everything.
James Blatch: Yes, I know.
Mark Dawson: When we go out, when we lose to Italy, which is almost inevitable, I'll be blaming you, and I'll encourage everyone to blame you, as well.
James Blatch: Good. Okay. Not everyone's interested in the Euros, even though we're slightly obsessed at the minute.
Mark Dawson: Yes.
James Blatch: We had our Book Lab episode, last week, which I know will go down well, because they always do. Of course, it goes without saying, you can get the back catalogue of the Book Lab episodes, and all the podcast episodes, all the shows, at selfpublishingformula.com.
This week, we are back to regular programming, our regular scheduled programming, and we have an expert to talk to, today. His name is Jeff Elkins.
Jeff has become a bit of a guru about dialogue; about making it realistic, the purpose of dialogue, how to get it right. Such an important issue. Some people love it. I have to say I love it. And I think I said to Jeff, at the beginning of the interview, I would happily write my entire book in dialogue; that's how I imagine the stories happening.
Other people find it more tricky to get it right. It leaps out the page, sometimes, when I'm reading books, and I think it's not particularly realistic. There is an art to it, like every little aspect of writing.
So, without further ado, let's hear from Jeff.
Jeff Elkins, welcome to the Self-Publishing Show. Great to have you here.
Jeff Elkins: Thanks, James. It's great to be here.
James Blatch: It's very exciting. We're talking about dialogue, we're going to be dialoguing about dialogue. I don't know if dialoguing is really an adjective we should use?
But it's funny, we speak all the time, but when people come to write dialogues in novels, we know it's not quite the same as informal conversation. And it's an area that some people get tied up in knots about, and they don't like it. I love it, personally. I should be a screenwriter. I'd write my whole novel just in dialogue.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. I'm a fan of that style.
James Blatch: Some people I know, they struggle a little bit with it. So it's an area I think we're going to dissect tonight.
Why don't we start, if you don't mind, with a little bit about you, and your background, Jeff?
Jeff Elkins: I started writing around 2013, 2014. I hadn't really done any writing before then. I started with short stories, as a stress relief from work. And then found myself in a really strange place. In 2015, I got let go from a job, and had four kids, a fifth kid on the way, and no way of making money.
James Blatch: Scary.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. Being let go from the job kind of wrecked my resume, made me a little unemployable at the time. So the only thing I could do was write; that was, I felt like, the only marketable skill I had.
So I started cranking out novels as best I could. Made a massive amount of mistakes, but started doing that. And thankfully I also got picked up by a tech company, who trains professionals from various walks of life, in difficult conversations.
James Blatch: Oh!
Jeff Elkins: The woman who led the company, she's a friend, and she'd been reading a bunch of my short stories, and she's like, "You're not traditionally trained in this area, but your short stories are good. Would you like to come on and lead our writing team?" So I did. I took the gig. That was seven years ago.
I've been obsessing over dialogue ever since. So it's been a wild ride. Seven years, 11 novels later. And a whole tonne of simulations, that are pure dialogue in huge amounts of areas, of different topic scenarios, and in professional life, written.
We hit 2020, and COVID hit. I was trying to figure out kind of where my fiction career went next. And I happened to meet with J. Thorn from The Author Success Mastermind, and The Career Author. And I know that you recently had him on the podcast.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: It was great listening to him, and Zack, talk.
So I met with him, and was talking to him about, like, "I don't know what the next step in my journey is." And so he took in my stories, and was like, "Have you tried coaching people in dialogue?" And I didn't really think of myself as a coach at the time, and I was like, "Yeah. I guess we could try that." I did a tonne of coaching in other areas of life, but not in writing.
So I launched The Dialogue Doctor in 2020, as a coaching service for writers, to help them improve their dialogue. And it's been fantastic. It's really taken off.
I get to work with authors all the time. In the last year, I've been able to work with over a hundred authors now, on their work. Helping them coach the dialogue. We've held multiple seminars on it, which has been really great, just to kind of help give people tools to use. We started a podcast, and it's going really well.
So that's me. I write. I coach on dialogue. And I'm having a great time doing it. It's a lot of fun.
James Blatch: Good. Well, let's talk talking in novels.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah.
James Blatch: Something that plagues me a little bit, early on, is, I read somewhere, you shouldn't have too much dialogue because it's tiring for the reader. And that stifled me a lot, when I was drafting, early, on. Because I thought, but, if people ask-
Jeff Elkins: That makes me so sad!
James Blatch: Yeah. What am I supposed to do? If people aren't talking, is, to tell the reader what's happening? It's much better that they have a dialogue and a conversation. But I got over that, and I do use quite a lot of dialogue, and I haven't had anyone say to me, "I was too tired reading your book."
Jeff Elkins: Yeah.
James Blatch: But there is a way of writing dialogue, that I think it isn't the way that you would converse to somebody, necessarily, in the house. Aaron Sorkin always says this, we say things in screenwriting and novels, like, "Damn it!" No one starts a sentence with "Damn it!," in real life, but you do in a novel.
Jeff Elkins: You do, in a novel.
James Blatch: And there's a slightly different sort of writing isn't there, for fiction?
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. And I'll just talk to that. I think this idea that we're not supposed to be writing dialogue in novels like we do in the real world, in part is true. In the real world there's a lot of stumbling in conversation, there's a lot of pointless meandering. If you just analyse the conversations you're having with people, they don't necessarily have direction, they kind of go nowhere, there's lots of "ums," like I just dropped in, and all that stuff.
If you put all that stuff into a novel, it feels a little too much like real life, and the reader is reading to escape real life. So that aspect of it is true.
I think we go too far in the other direction, though. Which is to say, okay, so dialogue always has to serve plot. And that is also not true; this idea that the purpose of dialogue is to only build the plot, and that's it. The real purpose of dialogue, and what we get out of, when we talk in real life, is emotional connection.
As community-based creatures, humans being tribal creatures that connect with one another, verbally, it's how we connect to other people. If you look at all the relationships you've had in life, and you trace them, you can trace them back to a series of conversations between you and that person. Whether it's your mother, or your siblings, or a romantic partner, you can look at it and say, we talked to each other, and that's how the relationship developed.
The same is true with the characters in your novel, and your reader. Your reader connects, emotionally, to your character, and follows your character's emotional journey through the book, by engaging with your character's dialogue. When we ask, "What is dialogue for?", that's what dialogue is for.
Dialogue is for the conveyance of emotion, and taking our reader on this emotional journey with our character, which is what readers are showing up for. Because, like I said, we're these tribal creatures; when we come to a novel, we're coming to connect with a character, we're coming to connect with that character's story, that character's journey. And the basis of that connection is that shared emotional experience.
So, in that, dialogue is one of the most important things you need to have in your story, because it creates that emotional tether between your reader and your characters. And it's what keeps readers coming back to your books, it's what keeps readers finishing your books, that they feel like they can emotionally unite with your character on this journey, and be taken on this experience.
When people are, like, "You need to not have too much dialogue," I think they're missing the point of what dialogue is. Dialogue is that emotional driver, so if you take it out, and you don't have enough of it to communicate the emotional changes your character's experiencing, you're going to lose your readers' connection with your book.
They might admire your prose, and they might admire the plot twists you have, but they're not going to go, deeply invested in your book, as they would if you had more dialogue that allowed them to take that journey with your character.
James Blatch: So, very important, dialogue. That's definitely how I felt about the dialogue in my novel; I felt that was the point where people would understand the character. In the same way that, in real life, somebody could describe you to me, and I know I'm going to meet you on Tuesday, and so I'm going to think, yeah, well, I'll know on Tuesday. You can say all you want about Jeff's background, or what he's like, and he's a nice guy, and all the rest of it, I'll know when I speak to him.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. And I think we've done ourselves a disservice as writers, because we've, for years, relegated dialogue to this secondary position behind plot, we've stopped thinking, necessarily, a lot about the tools that create great dialogue. So, characterization often becomes relegated to background, and into how the character's background is going to develop a plot.
The skill of modulating a voice, or creating a character voice and then modulating that voice throughout the piece in order to show emotional change, is something we don't talk about often, either.
And it was weird, in my simulation experience, where I'm writing difficult conversations all day, that's what we obsess over. In my training experience, where I'm training professionals of all these different walks of life, we're obsessed over modulating voice, we're obsessed over, how do we convey the emotional changes that are happening in a conversation, second by second?
When I came to writing novels, and looked at it, I thought, wow, I'm surprised we don't talk more about this, because it is such a critical thing we can do, in order to pull the reader into this journey we want to take them on.
James Blatch: Can you just break that down a little bit, when you talk about modulating the voice?
Jeff Elkins: Sure. So different areas of your life, different roles you play, different people you talk to, and different emotional states you have, you change how you talk.
If you go to order a coffee from a barista, you're going to sound one way. But then, if you walk away from that barista and get on the phone with your mom, and you talk to your mom about a difficult topic, you're going to sound a little bit differently, right? With the barista you may be casual, but not very vulnerable. But with your mother, when you're talking about a difficult conversation, let's say, you become more heightened and intense, so your sentences get a little bit shorter, you get a little bit more abrupt, you ask less questions and make more declaratory statements.
Then, let's say, you hang up the phone with your mom, and you call your romantic partner to talk about the conversation you just had with your mother. And as you become more vulnerable and more open, your sentences get longer, you share more of them, you talk more. Right?
These are all just different modulations or expressions of your voice, depending on the role, or setting you're in, and depending on who you're talking to. And as we listen to people talk about that kind of stuff ... Like, as you watch TV this is something that happens inherently, in that you see people modulate their voice, based on the emotional state that they're in, you see them change, and you feel that emotion, you go on that emotional journey with them.
That's happening in our novels as well, when people read the words we write, when they read our character voice, they're sensing the changes in that voice, and what those changes, and the body language, were used to communicate that dialogue, what those things emotionally are saying about our characters.
If we can get strategic about modulating voice, so that we can say, okay, I want my character to seem angry, and I want my reader to experience the intensity of that anger. How can I modulate my character's voice, right here, in a very strategic way, that builds up that emotion, and then climaxes that emotion, to take the reader on this emotional journey, and leave them engaged with my character in this moment?
That's what I mean by modulating voices; understanding the circumstances and the emotional state we want our character in, and shaping their voice to match those circumstances and emotional state, in order to communicate to the reader where we want our character to go.
James Blatch: That's really interesting. So those structural changes in the way that speak, depending on the context of the conversation, you're saying, something that we probably all do, but don't really analyse, as writers, and then employ that? I don't think I've ever properly worked out, in ...
I may do it, naturally, without thinking about it, but I haven't probably analysed it like.
Jeff Elkins: It's part of the human condition. The expression of emotion, through voice, is part of something that we just do as people. So it does come naturally in our writing.
But when I work with authors, I find that what they feel most often is, they say, "All of my characters sound the same. Everybody sounds like me." Which I've affectionately termed "mono-mouth," meaning that you have this disease where everybody sounds like the author sounds. And it can leave readers feeling like the text is a little bland and dry.
Part of being strategic about voice creation, part of that is diversifying voices. And then as we diversify the voices in our palette that we're colouring with ... Because I think of voices as colour that you're painting in your text. Or if you imagine you're an oil painter, and you've got this palette of colours, often, as authors, we're all just painting with different shades of blue. And as we start to be specific about the voices we create, we're adding greens and yellows and reds, and the palette that we're painting on is becoming more and more expressive.
Modulating voices is another way to start really creating this colourful, beautiful palette to paint with. Because not everybody's voice modulates the same way, and this is why we need to be strategic about it. Right? If you're a shy person, who doesn't speak a lot, in general, who is usually one of the last people to enter the conversation, and does a lot of listening, when you get angry you might be a stuffer, who stuffs and stuffs and stuffs and then explodes.
Whereas, if you're a super-extroverted character who talks all the time, who likes to make jokes, and who likes to laugh, when you start to get angry, you may be uncomfortable with that feeling, because you like being the centre of attention, and you like everybody being happy, so your anger is going to be expressed in a completely different way than stuffing and exploding. You may be trying to make peace, and trying to resolve that conflict, and that modulation in your voice will communicate to the reader that your emotion, the character's emotion is changing.
So the key to modulating voices, or the reason that we need to get strategic about it, is to ensure that we have that diversification of voices in our work to create that really vibrant palette that we're painting with. And also to make sure that we maintain voice consistency. So that as a shy character modulates their voice, the reader can get used to, oh, something happening, they sound different.
And that's on a scene by scene level, so that they can feel the change in emotion within a scene. And then, on a whole work level, so that they can feel the change in emotion across the entire novel.
Ideally the voice is going to modulate, scene by scene, but it's also going to modulate across the novel as the character goes on this emotional journey.
James Blatch: Really interesting. How would you advise us, as novelists, to go about ensuring our characters have their own way of speaking, their own dialogue? Some people draw up their character's attributes to help them. One of those things, I guess, could be, "Uses short, sharp sentences, doesn't speak very often." To consider dialogue at that stage, when you're drawing up your background attributes for your character.
How would you advise us, as novelists, to go about ensuring our characters have their own way of speaking, their own dialogue?
Jeff Elkins: A lot of times I'll ask writers, "Tell me about your character's voice." And they'll go into telling me, what I would describe as their character's background. Like, they'll say like, "They were orphaned as a young kid and they don't have parents. They've really struggled with this sense of feeling alone all the time." And I'll say, "That's fantastic. Those are great roots, and the background of the character. But how do they sound?"
And they'll go, "Well, because they were orphaned as a kid, they're real quick to take out from ourselves, and they're real proud, and they carry this chip on their shoulder." And I'll say, "Well, that's fantastic descriptions of their personality. But how does that sound? What does that voice sound like?"
Finally, as we work together, an author will go, "Well, that chip on the shoulder means that they declare a lot of things. And they're real quick to state their opinion, so that no one else can trample on them. They jump in to a conversation quickly. And they always have a plan; they're real commanding."
And I'll say, "Okay, so now we're getting to voice. Declaratory statements, first to speak, sharp and forceful things, and saying a lot of plans. So when they talk about what they're talking about, they're taking charge in the conversation all the time." So now we have a voice.
Once we get to that voice, then we can start talking about how we modulate it. When they're afraid, how does that voice we have, what aspects of it are expressed, and what aspects of it get suppressed, when they're afraid? When they're happy and celebratory, what aspects of that voice get expressed, and what gets suppressed?
Or when they're in a state of vulnerability, when they're opening up and sharing, do those declaratory statement stay, or do they soften a little bit? Are they still talking about their plans, or are they talking a little bit more open? And when we can start to shift voices that way, we start to create these intimate moments between our character and the reader, where the reader is really feeling them.
Going back to the shift between understanding background and voice, a lot of times what we do, as authors, is we give that background, or we give that personality, and then voice is assumed, and it's in our head. A lot of authors I work with will have pictures of actors for their characters. They're like, "Okay, so this character is like this actor." And often I'll stop them and I'll be like, "Just so we can remain consistent, and we can really think about how the character sounds, when you say, "This character is like this actor," do you mean this character has the same background as this actor? Or this character has the same personality as this actor? Or this character is using phraseology and pacing, like this actor is using phraseology and pacing?"
Nine times of out of 10, I find that authors are like, "Well, I'm not sure." And the problem with, "I'm not sure," isn't necessarily that they're doomed to write a bad book; that's not what I'm saying at all. The problem with, "I'm not sure," is that they're going to struggle with consistency as the work gets longer. If we haven't settled on what a voice sounds like, and we don't hear that character's voice in our head as we're writing, we start to revert back to our own voice, over time. And so it just creates an editing process, over and over.
A lot of authors I work with will be, like, "I don't even think about character voice. I write an entire draft just knowing that mono-mouth is going to be my problem. And then I have to go back and do a whole second draft where I'm thinking about character voice." And for me, it's like, "Hey, we can save you time, and drafting. Even if you're a pantser who doesn't like to plan anything, let's get 6000 words down, and then let's just pause and look at them, and define the character voice that you're writing here. And if we can do that, we can save you time over the long haul."
Because, as writers, I find that once we define the character voice, we've got it. I have yet to meet a writer who's like, "I've defined the character voice and I'm struggling to keep it through the book." Once we get it, we can write it. Once you can hear it in your head, you tend to be able to translate it to the page. And the key is to take that extra step and define it, and really get to the place where you've got that voice locked into your mind, and it'll translate on the page for you. At a minimum, it's going to be a lot easier to edit.
James Blatch: Do you have a suggested method of getting that dialogue, of noting it, to yourself? And how would you help yourself stick to those dialogue attributes? Bearing in mind, as you say, once you've got them, you then have to work out how to modulate them.
Jeff Elkins: I use a chart, because I'm an obsessive Excel guy. You can go to dialoguedoctor.com and get it for free from our website. We call it a Character Wheel Chart.
The rows are characters, and the columns are character background, character personality, notes on the character personality. And then we have you fill out what's called "a baseline voice," which is like, this is the voice that we're most often going to relate to this character.
After we do the baseline voice, then we say, "Think about the ways you think this character voice might change throughout the book", and then we just create a column for each change, and we write little notes in there, on how that voice might change for each scene.
So, for me, I chart it. I like the charting it, because it allows me to compare and contrast character voices. So I can look at my protagonist, and I can say, "Okay, my protagonist's voice sounds like this. And then I have this ally next to my protagonist ..."
So let's say I was J.R.R. Tolkien. And I'm like, "Okay, I've got Frodo's voice down. He's very measured. He's very systematic with what he says. He's a big observer. He's watching the world around him. He doesn't talk a lot. And when he does talk, he expresses a lot of personal fears. So the content of his talk is a lot of fears, and he questions some."
Now, I need to build an ally with him. I need to have somebody that's going to be on his side. When I put it in a chart, I can look down at Sam, and be like, "Okay, how is Sam's voice going to sound different, so that I'm not writing two Frodo's talking to each other, all the time? Because that's going to be really boring conversation. How can I make Sam different? But at the same time, how can I make Sam a compliment to Frodo, so that they would sound like two people that would talk together? How can I build voices that compliment and contrast one another, to create a more dynamic conversation?"
The chart allows me to look at my voices, so that I can align them up, and say, "Okay, I know these two people are going to talk a lot. And I want to build voices that are naturally going to compliment one another, and create some tension between each other. So, with Sam, if I were Tolkien, I would be like, "I'm going to build a voice that also is very measured. And also only speaks when it really has something to say. But is more of an emotional vomiter. And when they get to the state when they have to say something, they're just going to vomit. And this is going to create some great tension between Frodo and Sam, because Frodo's going want to stay guarded and reserved and keep everything inside. And Sam's going to push him, all the time, to have this emotional moment where he forces Frodo to process, emotionally, what's going in."
So that's why I use a chart, because I can look at all the voices and line it up.
Other ways to do it, though, are just to take a piece of paper and write down four to five words that describe your character's voice, and keep it somewhere where you can see it. And when I say, "words that describe your character's voice," as authors we have limited tools. We have short words and long words, short sentences or long sentences, content of the focus of that thing, and then common body language that character's going to use. If you can answer those four questions, you're on a really great start to defining a character voice.
James Blatch: It sounds like it's quite a lot of work. Which is fine. Writing a novel does involve a lot of work, and people happily do other aspects of this.
What are the main benefits of getting this dialogue nailed, so that your characters have their own voice?
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. So the point of all of this ... Because it's not work for works' sake. Like you said, writing a novel is hard enough, the last thing we want to do is make it harder. So this is about engaging the reader. We know that the reader engages through dialogue, that's why a reader grabs in.
When I first started this, I was super-sceptical, because I was like, I know I engage through dialogue. And I know that when I read, and you give me a block of prose, I tend to skim it. And if you give me pages of prose, I get bored about halfway through, and then I start looking for the when is something going to happen? Because dialogue is action. So, as our reader reads dialogue, they're reading the action. It is a doing, not a telling; it's showing, not a telling. When readers read dialogue, they're being shown something, not told something.
We know that as writers, that we need to show, not tell. But I was sceptical when I first started writing, so I went and got a tonne of masterworks; I got bestsellers from all different genres. And I took a highlighter and just started highlighting, how much are we dialoguing? And how much are we prosing?
I was shocked to find that the books that we find most engaging, the ones that we buy the most often and read the most often, they are, by far, majority dialogue. Some of them are 80 to 90% dialogue. And the prose is really just something that pushes you into the next scene. But every scene is full of dialogue and characters interacting with each other in that way.
So the thing that dialogue brings to our work is that reader engagement, which leads to reader read through, which leads to readers engaging in our series, long-term. If we're writing great dialogue, it is one of the aspects that sells a book.
It's not THE aspect that sells a book; there's also marketing and covers, as you and Mark talk about all the time, and teach so eloquently. But having great dialogue is part of what maintains readers' sustainability in our books. Great dialogue is going to keep readers coming back, and keep them reading into the next series. That's the primary reason for focusing on dialogue, is to get that reader engagement, because that's what we're after.
We want our readers to love our work and keep coming back to it, and that comes through that connection, and character.
James Blatch: I imagine that engagement comes, not just from getting to know the characters, but also the fact that they can very easily, in a conversation, work out who's talking. Which sometimes is difficult, and we end up saying, "He says," "She says," and wondering, as an author, do I have to say again this is who's talking?
That maybe a result of us not really differentiating the way people speak.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. Differing voices, very much helps with that. And the other thing it helps with is that emotionally entanglement between the reader and the character. And if we have a diversity of voices, if all our voices sound different, what's nice about that is that we're opening our reader up to having other avenues to connect to our work. So, if our reader finds they don't like our protagonist's voice, if we have strong diversity of voices, they have other options to emotionally engage with, which is also a benefit.
James Blatch: So we've got our structure, going into this. And then, writing the book itself, how do we check, how do we edit ourselves on this, and make sure that we've achieved this? Do you have a methodology, or it is simply a case of reading it back to yourself, reading it out loud?
Jeff Elkins: I actually don't read out loud. I know that that helps. And it can help to read out loud. But I find that, when I read out loud, I'm just hearing myself talk!
James Blatch: Right.
Jeff Elkins: Because I'm a terrible actor, it's very difficult for me to actually read it in another voice.
There's a lot of different ways we can go about this. So let me just give you some quick things that I do. One thing that I'll do, if I have a finished scene, is I'll take it, and I'll open it up in Word, which is what I usually write in. And I will take my cursor, and I will highlight in a specific colour, every characters' voice. So, character A might be blue. And then, character B might be green. And then, character C might be yellow. For a 2,000 word scene, it usually takes me about seven minutes just to go through and highlight. Because I'm not reading, I'm just looking for the words they say, and the body language they use, to communicate how they're interacting with another character.
If there's first person; inner thoughts, I leave the inner thoughts out. If there's descriptions of scenes, I leave the descriptors out. If there is somebody reflecting on what's happening in the room, or at some point I'm telling the reader how a character's feeling, I leave that out. I'm just looking for the direct, person-to-person interactions. I'm highlighting those different colours for each character. And then I'm just going to go through it and read the colours, one at a time. I'm just going to read the blue. And it will be like, is this voice consistency? And do these blue lines sound like I want this character to sound?
Then I'm going to go through and read all the yellow. Then I'm going to go through and read all the green. And then after I've corrected each individual voice, then I can come back and read the piece as a whole. So it's just a cheap, quick trick, it's going to add 30 to 40 minutes to editing a scene. But if you've got a scene where you've got three or four characters talking, and you read it, and you're like, man, this just doesn't feel right. A lot of times it's hard for us to diagnose what's going on. And what we get is, this doesn't feel right. Or I'm not getting the emotions I want to get out of this; it doesn't feel like I want it to feel. It's likely you're losing character voice in there, somewhere.
So highlighting those voices, reading through them, is a great trick.
Another trick I'll have, is I will read through it, and again, only read the parts where people are talking. So I'll remove all the other words, and I'll just read the back-and-forth. And reading the back-and-forth is great if we have just two characters in a scene, because reading that back-and-forth will let you know if the dialogue is actually conveying everything it needs to convey.
Or a lot of times, with authors, I find that we skip steps, because we're so plot focused and we're so prose focused, we end up missing moments and dialogue, and if we just read the back-and-forth, we realise, oh, this doesn't make any sense, unless one of the characters give us this transition into the next piece.
If I have a scene that I'm really, really struggling with, like a scene that just doesn't work, I'll actually change my process. And I say change my process, I used to change my process; this is actually how I wrote all the time now. But I'll write what I know many people call "a dialogue only first draft," which is, you just write what the characters say, back-and-forth. It looks a little like a screenplay, in that ... Well, recently, I was writing one between two characters I'm writing right now, Tuck and Rudy. So all you have on the page for the first draft is, "T", and then I have what Tuck says. "R", I have how Rudy responds. "T", what Tuck says. "R", how Rudy responds. I'll get the whole scene written that way, because that forces me to put dialogue, primary, and forces me to move the piece through the characters talking to one another.
And then after I've written my first scene that way, I'll come back and I'll add all the additional bits and pieces that we usually write with writing. Like, Tuck, lean forward, and look Rudy in the eye, and said ... And then I have what Tuck said there. And then I'll put in what Rudy said. And then, like, "As he crossed his arms." And then I'll have, "Tuck laughed," and then I'll have what he said. And then I'll have Rudy's response. And then I may have Tuck's response. And then I can put in some other body language for Rudy, that helps me, be, like, "Rudy sipped his coffee, paused for a moment, and then responded."
What that does is, it forces me to keep my dialogue central in the piece, and forces me to really focus in on that emotional conveyance between the two characters.
If you're struggling with a scene that has characters in it, and it's just not landing like you want it to land, I just recommend sometimes, "Hey, let's rewrite it so that it's dialogue first, and then we can come back and look at the rest of this prose that you want to add back in."
James Blatch: Do you use that technique as a first draft technique? Or is this only to come to back to scenes where you're struggling?
Jeff Elkins: When I first started writing it used to be an editing technique, where I'd take a scene that I was really struggling with and rewrite it, as an editing technique. But now I do it as a first draft. I write all of my drafts that way.
James Blatch: Right.
Jeff Elkins: I actually didn't come up with that. J. Thorn taught it to me, because he had learned it from somebody else. And I was like, "Oh, I'm doing this as an editing technique. I don't first draft his way." And so I started first-drafting that way.
And that wasn't entirely true, I had decided, at one point, I think this was 2018, I was like, I'm going to write a book that is only dialogue, just see if I can pull it off. And so I wrote a book that's a series of nine conversations.
James Blatch: Wow!
Jeff Elkins: It was just to see if I could do it. And it went okay.
James Blatch: Yeah?
Jeff Elkins: Yes! But, only to say, it's a technique that a lot of people use. It's not one I came up with. But if you're struggling with your character voice, I highly recommend it, because it forces you to focus on those interactions between characters. Especially if you're an author that likes to write inner thoughts. So if you're an author that adds a lot of inner thoughts, write the scene without them, and then put them back in as flavour. Get your meat and potatoes on the plate, and then after you've cooked your meat and potatoes, add all the gravy you want to. But if we can get that solid, first draft of dialogue in, we can then come back and spice it up, later.
James Blatch: Great. I think you may have offered to put some stuff together for us, Jeff?
Jeff Elkins: I've put together for you, a 10 minutes teaching on character voice to help. Because, again, I find it, a lot of times, writers don't ... When we say, like, we need to focus on character voice, they don't even fully get what that is, because we just haven't talked about it, enough. So we use an illustration at the Dialogue Doctor, called the Dialogue Daisy, that describes character voice as a flower, and a flower in four different pieces. So I put together a video that talks about it, just for your crew.
James Blatch: Great.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. It's hidden behind a secret YouTube link.
James Blatch: Okay. Well, we can hand that secret YouTube link out, if you go to selfpublishingformula.com/dialogue.
James Blatch: Now, let me just check, "dialogue" is spelled the same in the U.S., as it is in the U.K.? It's not one of those words that doesn't have ... We have a "u" in "dialogue," right?
Jeff Elkins: Yeah, we have a "u" in dialogue. D-I-A-L-O-G-
James Blatch: U-E? There's only way of spelling it? Good.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah.
James Blatch: I caught out the other day. I think, "honourable" is the word I was talking to a friend about, and realised it's spelled differently. You spell it incorrectly, of course!
Jeff Elkins: Of course! I fully agree with that.
James Blatch: Well, look, that sounds great. It's so interesting, in this industry that we're in, that some people, I think, don't need instructions in some areas. They just innately get it. They can't explain it to you. And other areas, they really struggle to master it. And whichever area you focus on, you can spend a day, a week, a month, talking about just this one area. So it can become a bit overwhelming. But dialogue is so important, and I think you've really underlined why.
And that readability thing, that's so important in a book; making it easy to read, easy to understand. So people get to the good stuff, right? What your story is about, what your characters are doing. Not having to wade through, who was talking then? And what's happening here?
I think that differentiation of character, that character voice, is so important in that, in making your book engaging, as you say. I think you said that right at the beginning; it's so important.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. To go back to Tolkien, we want that moment of Frodo and Sam at the cliff, where Frodo is debating whether or not he's going to throw the ring into the fire; we want to feel the pain of that moment. And we want our reader to feel Sam weeping, and Sam screaming, "Don't do it!" And the struggle that Frodo is having. But that struggle comes through dialogue. And so, if we don't have the dialogue, we rob our reader of that experience.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: We can describe that moment all we want to, but unless we pull them into the moment and get super-intimate with the reader, we're going to lose it. And that intimacy comes through that dialogue.
Jeff Elkins: I think the exciting thing about investing in dialogue, for somebody who hasn't, is that it's going to open up a whole new level of emotional depth to your work that you may not have experienced before.
James Blatch: Okay. So we'll give away that secret teaching at selfpublishingformula.com/dialogue.
And Jeff, where can people find you, and find out more about this?
Jeff Elkins: They can come find me at dialoguedoctor.com. That's where the central hub is, of everything. We do a podcast every week, that is me and other people talking about dialogue, and teaching on dialogue. And then there's a newsletter that comes out on Tuesday. And a Patreon bonus episode that comes out on Wednesdays. So all of that's available for people at dialoguedoctor.com.
James Blatch: Superb. Jeff, it's been compelling talking to you.
Jeff Elkins: Well, thanks for having me, James.
James Blatch: Dialoguing with you. Yes.
Jeff Elkins: It's been fantastic.
James Blatch: It's our pleasure. We'll have you back, at some point, and go over this again. And perhaps do a specific exercise. And maybe even a webinar on this subject, at some point?
Jeff Elkins: Oh, we love it.
James Blatch: I think that would be a good thing. We're a bit stacked at the moment, but we will definitely come back to this, because I think it's such an important project.
Are you going to conferences? Are you going to be doing any live teaching at any point? Can people catch you?
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. Coming up, I'm speaking at The Career Author Summit in September, in Nashville.
Sacha Black and I are doing a conference for the Vancouver Island Romance Writers Association, later, in ... I think that one's in October. We'll be talking about craft there, too.
James Blatch: Great.
Jeff Elkins: And then there's some other kind of fun projects we have, coming up, this summer. We've got two books releasing in the fall, on dialogue exercises; that'll be fun. And then maybe some special podcast stuff happening in July, which will be great too.
James Blatch: Cool. Sounds like you're as busy as we are? It's the only way to be.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah.
James Blatch: Jeff, thank you so much indeed. Thank you for joining us. And have a great rest of the day.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. Thanks so much, James.
James Blatch: Do you like the dialogue bit, Mark? Is it something that you look forward to, in your book? They're the bits that it comes alive for you? Or are you more somebody who likes some of the descriptive, being in someone's head, bit?
Mark Dawson: No, I think dialogue is great. It's one of my favourites. And often, when I get stuck ... I'm drafting at the moment, writing this 20th Milton book, and I'm going all over the place. So it's not sequential at the moment, I'm going forwards and backwards and all kinds of different directions. And I'll often start with a dialogue line, so a certain character will be saying something. And then I fill the rest of it out from there. So it's often my starting point.
Dialogue is fun. It's one of the more entertaining parts of the process.
James Blatch: Someone once said to me, very early on, when I was attempting to draft a book, someone said, "Oh, you can't have too much dialogue. It wears out the reader." I wasn't really sure what that means. But I have quite a lot of dialogue, and subsequently my editors have not said a thing to me about having too much dialogue.
Mark Dawson: It depends how you do it. When you look at someone like Elmore Leonard, who's one of my favourite writers, and he's well known for his dialogue; it's one of the things he's most famous for. And there'll be lots and lots of dialogue. I certainly don't get tired reading his books; not at all, it's fun. And it is a skill. When you're in the hands of a writer who knows what they're doing when it comes to something like that, the pages just fly by.
So, no, I don't really buy that. Unless, if you're bad at it, then, yeah, of course, you'll get tired of reading that. But hopefully, with practise, most of us can be fairly decent when it comes to writing dialogue.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: He said, angrily.
James Blatch: Yeah. Take out all your adjectives.
Mark Dawson: Exactly.
James Blatch: Okay. Look, thank you very much indeed to our guest today, Jeff Elkins. I hope you found that episode useful.
Thank you very much indeed to our Patreon supporters. We will welcome some more next week; patreon.com/selfpublishingshow.
I think that's it, Mark. We can actually go on the holiday that we've had by the time this goes out. We can do that. I'm going to go to Devon tomorrow.
Mark Dawson: I'm going to Suffolk on Saturday. So, absolutely.
James Blatch: We couldn't be further apart, Mark?
Mark Dawson: We could.
James Blatch: When are we having our golfing holiday?
Mark Dawson: I don't know. Are you sure you're up to it? I'm getting better.
James Blatch: I think we need to have one, soon. I am taking my clubs. I've found a way of strapping them to the roof, so I'm taking my clubs.
Mark Dawson: Oh, right. I'm not taking mine, so ...
James Blatch: We need to have a golfing holiday at some point.
Thank you very much indeed. All that remains for me to say is that it's a goodbye from him ...
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye.
James Blatch: Goodbye.
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