SPS-399: The Dialogue Doctor Will See You Now – with Jeff Elkins
What is ‘too much dialogue’ and why do my fight scenes feel dull? In writing, conversation is an unspoken hero for pacing and engaging your readers. Jeff Elkins troubleshoots dialogue problems routinely in his community. Today he joins us with tips, tricks, and a pdf worksheet.
- How much dialogue is TOO MUCH.
- Pacing your dialogue.
- Dialogue as energy.
- Character growth and voice.
- Dialogue ‘realism’ vs ‘authenticity’.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
SPS LIVE: Get your digital tickets here
PATREON: Self Publishing Formula Show’s Patreon page
The Dialogue Doctor Will See You Now - with Jeff Elkins
Speaker 1: On this edition of the Self-Publishing Show,
Jeff Elkins: There's ways to kind of cheat as like using body language as the vocalisation and creating dialogue type pacing on the page with the exchange of body language in the action. We tell others all the time, like, Hey, get them talking during the fight scene too. Mm-Hmm. , because we, you want to keep that energy up as they're trading blows. You want to keep that reader engaged in that movement, otherwise they're just going to skip to the end of the fight. Scene
Speaker 1: Publishing is changing. No more gatekeepers, 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 secrets of self-publishing success. This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Hello and welcome. It's Friday, which means it's the Self-Publishing Show with me James Blatch
Mark Dawson: And me Mark Dawson.
James Blatch: Bit croaky A man next to me last night. Oh, our cricketing won the league yesterday and it's only, it's only mid-August, so we've done really well. We've crushed the opposition.
Mark Dawson: And your son, your son. Crushed
James Blatch: Opposition. My son crushed your opposition. I've played twice. I did umpire yesterday and we are now drinking their tears. But so we went out for a few beers last night and the man next to me had, I can only imagine it was covid. 'cause I think there's a lot of it around again. Yeah. Now I don't want it again particularly, but we'll see. I could just be hung over. But anyway yes. How are you, Mark Dawson?
Mark Dawson: Yes, I'm fine. I've back from London, I was in as London recorded last week. I had a weekend in London with my daughter taking her to theatre school. And did a little bit of work. Not as much as I hoped I would do, but getting mostly when she was asleep at night. But I kind of miss my setup now 'cause I take my, I've got obviously got a nice laptop, but here, you know, I've got two big screens and a laptop and everything is just as I like it. And it just takes me a little bit of time to get used to not being in that setup. And so, yeah. But anyway, I did, I did it. I've been, I'm very close now a well, very, very close to releasing the 22nd Milton book. And I had my advanced readers report back with their comments and suggestions.
So what I did last week was basically go through, I must have had 40 emails, maybe some very, very detailed others. Not quite so detailed, but go through all of those and either make changes or decide not to make changes. And then send it to be proofed. And I've got it back, uploaded it actually to, to wide stores this morning. And we'll leave that out for about a week. And then I'll put it out on Amazon, I imagine Friday or Saturday, maybe this week. So that's been, yeah, a lot of balls in the air with that. And now we've got to get the manuscript off to audiobook for production and translation and all of that. So, yeah. Busy, but all
James Blatch: Good. Do you use drafter Digital when you go wide? I
Mark Dawson: Do. Yeah. Just 'cause I'm lazy now, so, I mean, 'cause I'm only really putting up for four or five days. It is just very, very much easier to use them, to put them on, on Cobo. Cobo and Apple and Cobo is an easy interface. Apple's a bit more fiddly. And obviously I could do it myself and I've, I have done many times, but it is just one of those things I'm quite happy to give draught digital 10%. Yeah. Just to take that off my hands makes it a bit easier.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Mark Dawson: Plus we got to, you know, Dan's travelling all over place. He's got to keep Yes. Keep running his Australia, if he's listening. Yeah, he's, he's got to fund his business class flight back from Australia to Oklahoma. Very important. Yeah.
James Blatch: Yeah. I hear he takes two seats, just 'cause he likes to put his bag on the seat next to him as well. Second business class seat. So, oh my
God's outrageous. I'm making that up. Okay. Alright. Well that's good. Listen, we're talking dialogue today which I'm excited about because I really, really enjoyed doing this interview. I'm a big dialogue person and I basically write, when I write, I know, write a book. I write a film. You never stop verbals. I write a film script rather than a book. And I use dialogue for, for moving the story along. I use it for description stuff. And I, you know, I really, I've really taken the info dump thing seriously. I've got it hammered into me early on by Jenny Nash. And so if information needs to come out, it comes out in conversation and stuff like that. So I do use dialogue a lot. And I remember one person said once, or I read somewhere that too much dialogue can wear the reader out.
Mark Dawson: I don't think
James Blatch: So. No. And Jeff Elkins was completely dismissive of that as well. And he said that you don't
Mark Dawson: Need to look at, you know, books like Elmore Leonard or other writers from the seventies and eighties and 92 kind of follow the Elmore Leonard School of Writing, which, and I, you know, I love, I love him and, and just the dialogue is the thing that carries the book on everything is about dialogue. Yeah. Look at, you know, and film Tarantino and that his dialogue is outstanding and, you know, yes. It's,
James Blatch: That's a lot of it.
Mark Dawson: A lot of it. But it's all, you know, if you actually read it, it's brilliant. The, and, and he, you know, he would, obviously he did Jackie Brown, which was a, a a, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard. So, you know, there's, there's a thread that goes through all of that.
James Blatch: Yes. If you're an actor and you get cast in a Tarantino film, you realise you're going to have to memorise shit. Big chunks. But I'm sure they get paid, rewarded. Well, okay, so Jeff Elkins is the dialogue doctor, how to get dialogue. Right. we talk about the community of writers that he has. You can join, I think Jeff himself does some coaching and we have a giveaway on dialogue and getting getting it realistic and all the things we talk about in the interview with some top tips. You can get that at self-publishing formula.com/speech. And let's hear from Jeff and then Mark, and I'll be back for a quick chat at the end of the interview.
Speaker 1: This is the Self-Publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: Jeff Elkins, welcome back to the Self-Publishing Show. Great to have you here. It's been a couple of years since we spoke before. And speaking of speaking, we're going to be speaking about speaking. How's that for a segue?
Jeff Elkins: That's a fantastic segue and thanks for having me back. I really appreciate it. I was really excited to come back and talk to you again.
James Blatch: I should be on some sort of cheesy radio station that broadcast only at night to truckers.
Jeff Elkins: I can see it. James Blatch. Yeah. Early in the morning, 2:00 AM to 5:00 AM
James Blatch: Yeah, that's me. Graveyard slot. That's what he is. Got. good. Look, I love dialogue. I'm a big dialogue person, honestly. I write like a film script. I just write in dialogue . And for me it's, you know, it it, it answers a lot of questions for me, like getting around info dumps and exposition and all stuff like that. I love, I think it's the easiest way of avoiding an info dump is to have conversations. But let's talk about it from your point of view. I know this is your specialist area. You do a bit of teaching in this. Well, I tell you what, let's back up a bit.
Why don't you start with a little bit about yourself.
Jeff Elkins: Okay. well, so you're mentioning I do teaching in this I podcast and do writing coaches, the dialogue doctor, I think since we last talked, I have probably done roughly 170 editing sessions with writers. Wow. just specifically focusing on their dialogue. So it's something that I am obsessive over. Something that I really love helping writers with. So yeah, so that's a, that's a little about me. And what we just did the dialogue doctor there's a community around it of writers who are working on their crafts together. We're constantly kind of discussing and working on like, Hey, you know, we're having this problem. How do we solve it? And so we just, I just put together a book of kind of all the tools we've come up with which gives you kinda like soup to nuts of dialogue.
So talking about like, you know, writing what we do in the communities, we, we talk about writing a screenplay ready novel mm-hmm. or a dialogue centric novel so that we shoot for like a dialogue doctor novel being between 70 and 80% dialogue. Is our goal regardless of genre. So and part of that is because we find that dialogue I think has always been this way from what I can tell from like, looking at Masterworks through history, but also even more so today in our kind of golden age of video storytelling dialogue holds the reader into the story and engages the reader in this incredibly deep way. And so, yeah, the, the, there is a thing that's too much dialogue. We can talk about that if you want to, but understanding that like your scenes need to be dialogue centric, that you're, that dialogue is the interaction of the characters and that's what the reader's showing up for. Like getting that I think takes your, your writing so much further and connects you to the reader in a really deep way. Yeah. That keeps them coming back for
James Blatch: Multiple books. I completely agree. And I'm, I remember being told once by an editor very early on that you can't have too much dialogue 'cause it wears the reader out. And I thought, I don't really understand that. 'cause I used to read, you know, at school and I was one of those strange people who enjoyed reading Shakespeare plays. And they're very funny, witty, brilliant things once you get into them. Yeah. And they're, they're just complete dialogue a lot novels size, and they're complete dialogue and I loved them. So I didn't really understand that, but I did, I did sort of
Jeff Elkins: Yeah, I, I go into it in the book a little bit. There's, so we break, I break dialogue up into like, one of the first things, and I'm going to say this just to like, get common vocabulary and then we can move on. But breaking dialogue, like two types of writing on the page, dialogue versus exposition. So dialogue is any time characters are interacting. Exposition is any time is descriptions, reflections or summaries. So in general, dialogue looks like a back and forth on the page. Exposition looks like chunks of paragraphs, right? They both have their uses, like they both have this impact on the reader. So dialogue creates energy two characters. When a character, if you're in a two person conversation, when two characters talk, we call that an exchange. So if character A has an utter, then character B, hazardous utterance, that's one exchange.
If you've got like a three or four person conversation when a character repeats, that starts a new exchange. So I'm saying that just because I'm going to start using the word exchanges. Is that what- Yea I don't just want to throw it out there. So energy and dialogue is created in the exchanges. It's why we feel like when we watch an Aaron Sorkin drama, it's why we feel like, man, those like walkin talks in the West Wing are like so powerful. And there's just all this energy generated is because the back and forth each back and forth pulls the reader deeper into this, into this, into the page, into the scene. And it generates this energy partially just because the reader's moving through pages faster. So it makes the reader feel like they're accomplishing something. But it also is the, like, getting deeper into the scene as these characters interact.
What pros, what exposition does, those like blocks of paragraphs exposition gives the reader a mental pause. It's fantastic for reflection, it's fantastic for like making the reader sit in a moment. It's fantastic for controlling the pacing and slowing things down. So when you have too much dialogue, it, what you're doing is you're wearing your reader out. So you have so many exchanges that your reader is just getting tired and they need to take a breath. If you think about it like swimming underwater, there's a point where you just have to come up and you have to breathe and you can go back down and have all the fun you want. It's the same with dialogue. Like you, you get those exchanges rolling. And if you go too far, if you go too long, the reader starts to get exhausted. But on the other hand, if you have more than like three to eight paragraphs at a time, depending on the genre of exposition, the reader starts to skimm.
So you have this bal, you have these two tools that allow you to control pacing. And the question is like, it allow you to control the reader's experience. And so if you want like high intense scenes, like if you're writing a thriller or if you're writing a crime drama, or if you're writing a romance where you want like intimacy built more exchanges. If you're writing something where you want it to move slower, like you're writing lipstick or you're writing something that like, you want to feel plotting or maybe you're just writing a moment where the, it's supposed to feel very reflective, more expositional paragraphs. Right? Like, so we want to break those two things up. And it's all about understanding your tools and how to use them. But I do work with really, like what Shakespeare had that we typically don't have in the novel are scene breaks.
So you get a mental breath in Shakespeare because you're reading the play, and then you come to a place where it's like in scene. You're like, okay, breath. And now I can get into the next scene. Right. Well, and the novel that kind of in scene for us is either a chapter break or it's a expositional paragraph. Okay. It allows you to kinda like, take that breath, that mental breath, and then start building that energy again. But yeah, this is like what we do, what I do at the dialogue doctor, and what the community does is, you know, we try our best to look at Masterworks and like look at books that have sold. And when I say masterworks, I don't mean like necessarily classics. I mean books that have sold in their genre for decades and decades, or books that are selling in their genre now that are just like, you know, off the charts blowing people away.
Well look at books that readers love over long periods of time. We try to look at those and we ask like, what are they doing? What's happening? And one of the things I learned when I was looking at these masterworks is like, Hey, these are like 60 to 80% dialogue regardless of genre or time in history. And the question is like, why? It's like, oh, well the dialogue creates this intimacy and this engagement, but it's, there's no rules. It's not like I can say like, never are they, are they always, because we're not talking about rules, we're talking about like the tools you use and how those tools impact readers and what the readers expect when they come to your work. So there's not rules. There's expectations. you can always defy those expectations, but in general, you'll find that works you love, they keep their paragraphs, their exposition care paragraphs under eight paragraphs at a time because master authors just know if you like, people start skim. So
James Blatch: There is, there is,
Jeff Elkins: They keep us engaged.
James Blatch: There is an almost a framework for this that a try and try and tested formula almost.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. Well, there's a formula, but it's, I don't want I don't preach a formula. I preach like, Hey, understand your tools and know what your tools are doing to the reader so that you can manipulate your reader's experience in your book so that you can be the artist you want to be. Right. Like, if a, if an oil painter doesn't understand how their paintbrushes work, they're kind of just like pushing paint around. But once they understand like, okay, this brush does this and this brush does this and this brush does this, they have the power to like move that paint around in a really dynamic way. And the same way as an author, we got to understand like what our words do on the page. What does dialogue do? What does exposition do? What's the power of exchanges? What's the power of an utterance? Right?
Like what's the, how do, how do dialogue tags actually impact what's happening on the page? Like all of that kind of stuff. And by understanding our tools, it empowers us to move the paint in a way that creates the painting. We want to, we want to create, it lets us be the author we want to be. So it's not that like, oh, here's the formula. Use the formula for dialogue. It's like, here are the tools, here's what they do. You know, now that you're empowered with the tools, how do you want to shape the reader's experience on, on the page? Do you want this moment to feel reflective, slow it down, have more expositional paragraphs, put three of 'em in instead of one? Do you want this moment to feel? Well, like what we say to what we say in the dialogue, doctor community, is if you want the reader to feel something, make a mess and then make them sit in the mess.
So like, make an emotional mess with your dialogue and then slow down with some exposition paragraphs and make them sit in that mess. And your reader will feel that moment in the text. If you want your reader to get a tonne of energy, you want it to feel like things are running and happening and moving. Get that dialogue out there. So it's like you're saying with expositional dumps, the reason we don't like them as readers is 'cause they feel heavy. And like, we don't, like we want to get into the scene. We don't want to take all this time of like the summary. So if you have a lot of information to convey and you want to get it, you want the reader to enjoy that conveyance. Put it in somebody's mouth. Right. Like get two characters talking about it and it'll solve that like, heaviness problem because dialogue creates energy so it makes it feel energetic. And you can get your information across. But it's like, you know, I think a lot of times we think this stuff is magic. We read a book and we're like, oh my gosh, that book is magic. But it's not magic. It's just understanding like what the tools do. Yeah. And learning to use them in a way that empowers the author voice you want to have.
James Blatch: That's, that's great because we, you know, we talk about pacing a lot in terms of structure and story, but actually there's pacing within scenes, which is in some ways more important to the reader. That's the, they're going to either turn the page or, or maybe feel a bit drawn and I, I can't really plot on with this.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. To get to the, to to appreciate the pacing you've created in your story. They have to enjoy the scene.
James Blatch: Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: If they're not enjoying the scene, they're not getting to the end of the story. So getting your scenes in the rhythm that you want them to have and understanding like, okay, at this point of the story, I need to have this big emotional moment. Right. So if you want to have a big emotional moment in the story, expect to be using more expositional paragraphs. 'cause You're going to slow down and we're going to make us feel this moment. If you want high energy action, get your characters talking. Like, one of the, one of the issues that we have in the community we've tried to solve a lot is like, writers will be like, okay, now I'm going to write an action scene and everybody's going to stop talking and I'm just going to focus on the action
James Blatch: Scene. Yeah.
Which, which goes against, against what you've said, right?
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. You lose all the energy, you get these big expositional paragraphs. So there's ways to kind of cheat as like using body language as the vocalisation and creating dialogue type pacing on the page with the exchange of body language in the action. But like we tell others all the time, like, Hey, get them talking during the fight scene too. Mm-Hmm. Because you want to keep that energy up as they're trading blows. You want to keep that reader engaged in that movement, otherwise they're just going to skip to the end of the fight scene. Yeah. So it's like but again, it's understanding that like, okay, I, I want this to feel fast to the reader. I need the reader turning the pages. So at a minimum, I need to use dialogue type spacing to get the reader turning those pages even better, because the vocalisation, what's coming outta the character's mouth is the emotional conduit to the character.
So even better if I can get the character talking, then I can can emotionally connect the fight scene to the character too. And it, it, it sounds weird, but go read your favourite fight scene in a book. I promise it's space like dialogue. I promise it's space like an exchange. And I, I don't even need to like tell you a specific book. Go read any one you want, I promise you're going to read it. You're going to look at it and you're going to be like, oh, crap. It is space. It is not these heavy paragraphs. But so often as writers we're like, okay, now I got to write a sex scene, so I'm going to stop everybody talking and I'm going to put it in these big chunks of paragraphs. That's not what the, the reader wants to feel intimate and engaged in the scene. It has to look and feel like
James Blatch: Dialogue. So the same thing applies to the sex scene that would, to an action scene. You've got to, I You'll be careful with your language. You've got to put it in the mouths a bit.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I would,
James Blatch: Yes. Obviously it's going to be, but now going to be litted that
Jeff Elkins: Could go very wrong because its going to be
James Blatch: Littered with double entendres here. But yeah. So you've got to have them saying something otherwise it's. For the same, same reason. Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. And it's that like, you know, again, this is about like understanding the tools we have to craft the experience we want the reader to have. Right? Like, if you want a heavy plotting action or sex scene, don't make it look like dialogue. Put it in paragraph form. Right. Like, if you, if that's what you want, go for it. If you want one that's full of a lot of energy and you know, back and makes the reader feel like they're present in the exchanges between the characters, make it look like dialogue on the page.
James Blatch: Brilliant. Yeah. John, I'm going to give a plug for the giveaway now because I know people will be into this and they want to know more. But we're going to give a you've, you've put together a P D F and I'll give the the euro again at the end, but you can get that at self-publishing formula.com/speech. Let's go with that, just because dialogue is quite a hard word to spell.
Jeff Elkins: I love it.
James Blatch: So, forward slash speech. And what's going to be in that, that P d f Jeff?
Jeff Elkins: The p f is a character growth worksheet. So part of what we talk about in in part of what I talk about in the book is understanding your character's voice as an expression of your character's personality, and then modulating that character voice in a scene level to express emotion and on the story level to express character growth. So the P D F is a worksheet that allows you to lay out like, here's what I know about my character's backstory. Here's what I know about my character's personality. Here's how I'm going to define my character's voice. Here's my character's voice at the beginning of the story. Here's my character's voice at the end of the story. Here are the emotional beats that, that I need to make sure I cover with my character's voice so that, you know, you, you can show the reader, not tell the reader how your character's growing through the book. But that's what the P D F does. It covers that up. Great. It gives you like the questions and the, the spots to understand, to plot out your character's growth through the novel by modulating your character's voice.
James Blatch: Brilliant. Thank you for doing that. We'll give the u r l again at, at the end. The other thing I want to talk about is because that's, that's fantastic insight into the use of dialogue in terms of the conveying the emotion, the impact, what you want the reader to feel. I mean, really, really insightful. The other thing is, is getting the dialogue realistic, you know, writing, and I think some, some people do struggle with this, and I, I see it sometimes I see it in films and just think people don't really talk like that. But, but I also think this is for you, not me. I'm going to say something here, but
I sometimes think that when you are writing dialogue in a novel, it's not exactly how we would speak. It isn't like that. But at the same time, you can't take it so far away because then it just becomes a bit silly. Yeah. But there's somewhere, somewhere just slightly removed from the, the actual way that we would talk.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah, yeah. Nobody wants to listen to the, my big conversations every
James Blatch: Day. No, no.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. I, I actually have stopped using the word realistic dialogue. Okay. Because I don't, I don't think when we say a lot of, you know, what I do at the dialogue, doctor is listening to what readers say, listening to what editors say, and then trying to understand like, okay, how do we fix that? What I've found is that when somebody's saying the dialogue in this doesn't feel realistic, what they're saying is the dialogue doesn't feel authentic to this character's personality. So you have a shy character that talks a lot. This dialogue doesn't feel realistic. Right. You have a character that's supposed to be charismatic, but their character voice is plotting and they sound more like C three po where they're just giving us story beats. We like, it doesn't feel realistic. Right. But if we understand like, what our character voice is supposed to sound like on the page, we can fix the dialogue sounding realistic by making the voice authentic to the character.
Because like you're saying, a lot of dialogue isn't realistic. Like, you know, I mean, I'll, I'm going to use a a movie example because I, I find there more universal in understanding than if I use the book example. But, you know, think about like Heath ledger's the Joker in those, in that classic Batman movie. Nothing about the way he talks is realistic. Nothing about the way, but it is incredibly authentic to who he is. And we love that character. We adore that character because he, the, the voice of the character is so authentic to who the character is that we just can't wait to like see what unhinged thing he's going to do next. Yes. I was going to, I was going to
James Blatch: Example going to say it's part of his character, that voice, it helps inform us about his character. Slightly. Yeah. Slightly. Un unhinges a good word. Creepy almost way that he talks, but not, yeah. And yeah, not realistic, but
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. And it's, it, so taking that as a movie example, you know, there's an advantage we have, Robert McKee actually points this out in his book dialogue. There's an advantage we have in that over movies in that we as a writer have a direct connection to the reader, whereas the screenwriter has to go through a director and has to go through all the actors and has to go through the videographer and has to go through the editors. So their story that's in their imagination becomes this giant team effort before the consumer gets to consume that story. We, as a writer, have this huge advantage in that, like, it's just us. It's our words on the page and the reader what's in our imagination. We can put in the reader's imagination. The downside is that like, we don't have Heath Legislational expressions to like, help our dialogue makes sense.
We have to like, come through on the page with the character voice being authentic in itself. So I think it puts a greater burden on us to understand how character voices sound. If somebody wants to study somebody doing this really, really well, right now, TJ Clune is a master of character voices. And if you want to look at like, what does it mean for dialogue to feel realistic with completely unrealistic characters, the House in the Ian Sea he has a, a group of children in that book that are just amazing. They're amazing voices, and it feels each voice is authentic in every line to who the character is. Or he just wrote the Life of Puppets. Another one, you know, he's got, it's about robots and there's a vacuum named Rambo that's incredibly anxious. Rainbow always sounds anxious, and it's not realistic for a vacuum to sound anxious, but it's authentic to who Rambo is. So you get lost in this completely unrealistic story and fall deeply in love with this character because you know who the character is, by the way, the character's voice sounds on the page. Yeah. And that's what's key for us, is that like, getting those character voices to sound how they're supposed to sound on the page. So important.
James Blatch: Yeah. And that's that's I think an important thing that we perhaps miss, particularly when characters are quite similar, is we perhaps give them all the same voice, but actually it doesn't have to be. And by the way, I think it might have been w in Phoenix Rather Heath led journey in, in Joker, just 'cause I know, is that right? Was you thinking of that film?
Jeff Elkins: Joaquin? I'm thinking of the Batman movie. Joaquin Phoenix is in the Joker
James Blatch: Movie. Oh, okay. 'cause I think that what you said applied exactly to Joaquin Phoenix. It does. I was thinking about him the way he spoke, again, the kind of a styl stylized way, but it was about his creepiness. And it's funny how it fits both of them.
Jeff Elkins: It does. And but like you were saying, with similar characters, just to go with where you're going, they both have different voices, right? Yeah. They share the unhinged nature of their voices. But Joaquin Phoenix has a like voice that drives you toward compassion. Whereas for him, whereas Heath Ledger's voice is oddly charming and unhinged. So there's this, you know, kind of broken and unhinged and charming and unhinged. They share the unhinged, but when we change that other adjective and change how their voices sound, so, you know, I haven't actually seen the Joaquin Phoenix Joker, but from what I've seen, there's a lot more anxiety in his voice. Whereas with the Heath Ledger Joker, he's a very confident character. Yeah. So Heath Ledger tells a lot of stories, and he shapes, so the topics he chooses to talk about are different. The topics Joaquin Phoenix chooses to talk about Heath Ledger. Part of that unhinged voice that they both do though, is unhinged characters change topics unexpectedly before we know they're going to, they also shift up their construction of their utterances. So like how they use words, they go from short, abbreviated sentences to suddenly bursting forth with like a long sentence, then back to a short one. It creates that feeling of unhinged ness. So they're both doing that. But you'll notice Joaquin Phoenix using a lot more questions, right. Because it creates that like, uncertainty in his voice where Heath Ledger rarely asks
James Blatch: Questions. Yeah. He knows who asks unless
Jeff Elkins: His questions are Yeah. Unless his questions are driving to a point. Right? Like, but so it's about like understanding what makes like those five things that make a character voice, understanding those five things. And then when you have two characters that you want to be similar, but different, making some of those five aspects similar and then shifting up a couple of them, and so that they sound different to the reader too. It's great when you have like in a book where you, when you have friends that drive each other crazy, right? You want them to share certain aspects of their voice and then also shift aspects of their voice so that they, they're similar but different at the same time. Angie Thomas in her book, the Hate You Give does this in an amazing way. Her lead character star actually has two voices.
She has a voice at her private school and a voice in her, in her public life. So she's got two different voices that she uses. The character actually talks about it, it's really great. But then the voice at her school, she has two friends. They sound very similar to her in some ways, in, they're like the topic, the construction of their utterances and how they participate in conversations and the vocabulary they use. But then their body language and the topics that she used to talk about are different, which separates star from these two friends that she has at school. So it's that kind of like, and you know, the deeper part of this and like creating character growth is asking like, okay, so how does star's voice change over time? She becomes way more confident in her voice over the book. And you actually see this, like her finding her own speech over the book and being able, instead of letting other people at school drive the topics, she starts to choose the topics that are spoken about. So it's this like manipulating, modulating her voice to communicate character change over the course of a book. And then modulating her voice to keep her similar, but different than the characters around her. Right? Like, it's a, and that's what we talk about. Like, we have these tools we can use to start shaping the experience our reader has when they read our, our work.
James Blatch: Wow.
How many authors do you think, and I include myself, spend this amount of time thinking about the dialogue aspect of their character.
Jeff Elkins: I think I'm the only crazy person that does this.
James Blatch: Yes. ,
Jeff Elkins: I will say, well, that's not true. There's about 70 people in the dialogue Doctor community. I, they have all started to think about this. I've shared my insanity. But there's a, it is one of those things, like, I remember the first time I read Save the Cat. I know you read Save the Cat. Yeah. I never, I could never watch a movie the same. No,
James Blatch: No. Sport Sport movie watching . Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: Spoil movie
James Blatch: Watching forever. That doesn't work. Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. But in the same way enhanced movie watching, because now I have more respect for the craft. Yeah. Especially when somebody is taking my expectations and messing with it and they're like, oh, I see what you're doing with the Hero's journey, and I see how you're playing with it a little bit. And I respect that in a new way. In the same way like understanding dialogue. It's one of those weird mysteries that, like for some reason as writers, we just never try to piece down into what it is. And like, our advice around dialogue tends to be like, should you use dialogue tags or should you not use dialogue tags? And that's where we stopped talking about it. Yeah. And it's like, you know, once you really start to get into like, what is a character voice? How does it fall into the page?
How's dialogue constructed on the page? Do you stop seeing books the same way? But you start to respect 'em in a totally new way? Like when I read authors now, I just reread the Handmaid's Tale mm-hmm. by Margaret, how Wood man, talk about a powerful first person character voice. That the voice is so clear that it, it it's trauma inspired and like pained and struggling. Like June's voice is just this an intense, and at times even close to manic because of what she's experiencing as her narrator voice. And then pulling in the other voices from the kind of community of characters that she's around just creates this amazing palette. Now, when I first read The Handmaid's Tale, before I did, really started obsessing over dialogue. I was like, man, this book made me feel a certain way. Now I read The Handmaid's Tale. I'm like, I understand what she's doing. That makes me feel that way. Yeah. I get what's happening here that's making me feel that creates this powerful master work that, you know, decades later we're still talking about.
James Blatch: Yeah. You know, I think I read it in well, I know I read it in the eighties. And it, it was such a, I was quite, I was young then. It was so sinister. It stayed with me a long, stayed with me years though. Yeah. And I didn't really, like, there was a film version with I didn't Nanette Newman. I saw like that in around that time. I didn't really like watching it because I felt it, it was horrible. But that's, that's the power of how Well, I had no idea what I was, you know, I didn't have the insight of the novel at the time that we would have now reading it. But yeah, it left a deep impression with me.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. Well, it's like watching Star Wars before and after reading instead of the Cat. Right? Like, you watch it Yeah. Before reading Save the Catch. You're like, man, that felt great. You watch it after reading Save the Catch. You're like, man, the B characters come back at just the right time. Yeah. , right. Like that, that's what makes me feel great with, with dialogue. It's like reading Margaret Outwood, the Handmaid's Tale. You're like, man, this feels sinister and gross. I don't know why, but it just made me feel a way. And that's how readers respond to our work. They respond with just raw feeling. Yeah. They have an emotional experience and they communicate that emotional experience. So like if a reader, if a reader reads your beta reader project and you're like, how'd you feel about 'em? They're like, meh. They're communicating the volumes of emotional experience.
I didn't connect with the characters. I did. I couldn't probably, I couldn't sort out the character voices. There was no voice to like grapple onto and there wasn't a lot of emotional change. Right. Like, so I feel meh, but the reader just goes, I feel meh. It's our work as the writer to understand why the me is being created in the same way that when we read Outwood, it's like, why do we feel sinister and gross? It's not just a plot. Yeah, no. Because you could write the same plot. Yeah. Remove June's voice and it's just like, ah, yeah. Yeah. But like, oh, that's weird. That's an interesting sociological study that you did. But when you add the voice of this character whose voice is so clear and so powerful, now it has this deep emotional impact on Yeah. And like Yeah. Or like, I think about like, you know, just off the top of my head, like Cormac McCarthy's, the road, the father character, his voice is so burdened, right?
He vocalises very little. He, the topics he chooses are about survival. He has inner reflective moments about like, the pain of the moment, right? And it, it creates, you're reading it and it creates a terror. You share his terror for his child and you're just overwhelmed by like this dystopian world that this father now finds himself in. And it's just this like super powerful character voice that brings us into that narrative. And so, again, like going back to what we were talking about though, 'cause I could just sit here and jabber about examples. Going back to what we were talking about, the key is like understanding our tools. Now, some people are just naturally good with tools, right? Like, I don't know that Margaret Atwood, you could sit down and go like, these are the five components of Jude's voice. She possibly is just an incredible master of crafted a character voice. There's some of us that don't have to study this. I am not that way. I have to study, understand that. I think most,
James Blatch: Most of us, we can put ourselves into that, that bracket. Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. If you are a master of it, man. Yeah. Good on you. Like, wait a go. Yeah. Yeah. It's that kinda like, I think we can create those same kinds of moments for readers by understanding our tools and knowing how to use them in the work.
James Blatch: You better tell us what these five components are.
Jeff Elkins: Oh, sorry. No, I'm not going to say you secret. It's a secret. It's a secret. No. it's the topics the character chooses to talk about the words the character uses, specifically the vocabulary the character uses. So like topics, the character chooses to talk about a narcissist. All the topics are going to drive toward themselves, right? Like everything they talk about is going to drive toward themselves. We talked about an unhinged character. Unhinged characters change topics all the time because they never wanted you to be settled. Like an unhinged character never lets you settle in a conversation. So the conver the topics are just changing at random times. A a commanding character keeps topics focused on the point at hand, right? So like, if you're writing a commanding character, they're talking about what's happening right now. If you're writing a shy character, they push the topics away from themselves.
They don't want to talk about themselves. So they're pushing the topics away to other people. So it's the topics you talk about. The words used the vocabulary, we're familiar with that, right? Like intelligent words, like big words, show education or like more, you know, blue collar words show particularly a lack of education. If you want to see how like shifting words can really change your perception of a character. The movie Goodwill Hunting is great for that because he flips in and out of two type two voices in that movie, his educated voice, and then his not educated voice. It's why we love the bar scene where he comes up to the guy and he's like, you know, talking like a blue collar Boston guy to the girl. And then he gets challenged by this educated Harvard guy, and all of a sudden he flips his language to be this highly educated language.
We love it. But anyway, that's like the trick. You can play with vocabulary. But there's, there's vo, there's topics vocabulary, there's body language. Body language. We talk about a lot about body language being a representation of the character's emotion. But body language first has to be seated in the character's personality. A shy character's never going to wave their hands over their, over their head. No matter how excited they get, they're not going to do it. A bubbly character is almost never going to put their hands in their pockets 'cause they speak with their hands. So body language is personality first, and then emotion second. So we talk about body language topics, vocabulary, body language, the construction of the utterance on the page. So like each care, when a character speaks in an exchange, we call that their utterance. Is that, is it a short sentence with a few words in a period?
Or is it a long sentence with a lot of commas that keep running on so that the sentence feels like it never stops, right? Like, how's that utterance constructed on the page? That is a description of the character's personality. So shy characters going back to that character example, are going to have just one or two words in a period. They don't want to be talking, they don't want to be vocalising, they're shy. So small sentences, periods bubbly characters are going to have long constructed run-on sentences with lots of commas because they have this kind of like word vomit feeling to them. So if you want a bubbly, fun, exciting character, have them just flow out sentences that just keep going and going and going, and never stop. If you want an anxious character, give them a lot of question marks. Oftentimes you'll see anxious characters ending sentences that shouldn't in question marks.
Yeah. Because it gives that feeling of uncertainty. And then the last component is the rate of utterances per conversation. So if you have a conversation of three or more characters, how when your characters participate in that conversation communicates to us something about that character's personality committing characters will wait, but always have the last word, right? So they sit out of part of the conversation, but when they're ready to speak, they end it. Right? Unhinged characters are always keep you off balance. So sometimes they're talking a lot, sometimes they're being silent, and then they'll come back to talking a lot and then they'll be silent again. Shy characters sit out of segments of conversation until they're pulled in by somebody else. So it's that like, but we as people, these five things, we as people, we naturally observe these things in real life. When you go to a party and you meet somebody new for the first time, you are paying attention to what they're talking about, the vocabulary they're using, how they're taking up space in the world, right? What their sentences are constructed like, and how often they're participating in the conversation. Like, that's what your brain is doing when you're watching people talk. And so in order to make dialogue realistic, we have to be authentic to character voices so that you feel like you're watching a real character emerge on the page. Yeah. And part of that is like, you know, so I tell writers, like, if you're a plotter and you like having a design and a system, go ahead and design your lead character's voices before you
James Blatch: Start writing. I was going to say this, this is the natural step from what you are talking, is to have that noted down. Yeah.
Those characteristics as well as people sometimes do this anyway, the characteristics of the character have that sort of noted down before, but to actually have their voice, those five components, which one, you know?
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. Part of what I found at the dialogue doctor, is that authors usually don't go far enough. Yeah. They'll get a background, like a large character bible background. They'll might describe some aspects of the personality in that background. Maybe they give them like an Enneagram number. Maybe they give them like strengths finder strengths, but they give them like, here's the personality. And then a lot of times they'll find a picture of an actor that's like, this is the voice I'm going for, but they never actually take the step and go, but here's what the voice sounds like on the page. Yeah. Like, they never, they just hope that it emerges. And what happens is you start slipping into just your personal voice. Yeah. And so all your characters start to muddy up inside the same, you'll have glimpses of unique character voices, but it's really hard to write a Handmaid's Tale where June's voice is so strongly pronounced, other characters and the aunts are also strongly pronounced voices. It becomes very difficult to do that unless you've actually sat down and thought about how do these voices sound on the page. I tell Pantsers though, like, don't do this stuff until after you've pantsed. Right?
James Blatch: Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: So if you're a pants and you're like, I just got to get it out, get it out. But then before you edit, take a minute and be like, okay, how did I intend that character to sound?
James Blatch: Yes.
Jeff Elkins: And then go ahead and report it so that while you're editing, you have an editing guide.
James Blatch: Yeah. And that's you know, you get to the point, you want to get to the point, you talked about dialogue tags early, but I guess you want to get to the point where there's no point where the reader's reading speech and thinking, oh, who's speaking? Which does happen a lot. It does. But if you, if you've got those voices, you won't even need the tags. Right. Because the, the reader, it'll be obvious when someone's speaking. Who's speaking?
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. Can I give you my rant on tags?
James Blatch: Go ahead. Let's, let's say, okay, we'll have to conclude soon, but let's,
let's conclude with the rant on tags.
Jeff Elkins: Here's my rant on tags and I'll keep it short. So we have this like all or nothing approach to tags where like you do all you every, all every sentence should have a tag because we have to know who speaking versus like, never ever, ever have tags. And I've, I've worked with writers where I'm like editing them and they're like bending over backwards to not have tags. They've got like paragraphs of body language Yeah. Yeah. To not have tags. And I'm like, you're wrecking your exchanges, you're ruining your energy. You can like fix that with like James said, and then we're like, good to go. So I think part of understanding like when to use dialogue tags is getting like the purpose of them. And there's three reasons we use them. There's identifying who's speaking. There's changing the construction of the utterance. So putting a dialogue tag before an utterance makes it sound more reflective. Putting a dialogue tag at the end of the utterance helps us ignore it and makes the piece just move faster. But then placing the dialogue tag in the middle of the utterance actually breaks how the reader hears the vocalisation. Like a
James Blatch: Pause. Yeah.
Jeff Elkins: Oh yeah. So you can use dialogue tags to help construct your character voice. Like something you might put on your chart is always has dialogue text in the middle of utterances. Hmm. Because it makes the character voice sound more choppy, right? Like, it makes them sound more sometimes rhythmic or sometimes even like stuttering. Like you can use dialogue texts in that way. So they, we use them go down speaking. We use them to, you know, shape the reader's experience of the utterance, but then we also just use them to like build out the emotional tone so they like increase what's going on. So if you're in a two person scene, you're right. You don't need any dialogue tags. We know from the dialogue spacing who's talking even the character voices on the same, we're tracking the page with the, you know, every other line is a new voice, so we know who's talking.
When you get into a three person scene, that gets much harder. So you have to start using dialogue tags more on a three person scene. But it doesn't just mean you have to fold them in, right? Like, you have this artistic way to play with them to actually like craft your reader's experience at the at the character voice level. So my, like, I get sad when people are like all or nothing on dialogue tags. I understand it because, you know, not using them forces writers to be really creative with what they're doing. Using them helps writers be really clear with what they're doing. I understand the advice, but part of me is like, it's like saying you, you either only build a house with a hammer or you're never allowed to use a hammer to build a house. Like, no, you use a hammer, you need to knock it a nail. Yeah. You need to knock it a screw. Don't use a hammer. Right? Like, so it's like understanding the tool alone, like why you use it and how you use it. Dialogue tags are one of those tools I think we use a lot. But yeah, it's a, it's good to take a step back from 'em and be like, okay, what does this actually do?
James Blatch: This has been brilliant. Jay, I feel like I've been on the dialogue train. Like I just got on, got on, it was still moving as I got on it, it was already already moving, then it was like breakneck speed and we're still shooting up to the other terminal. Let's remind you that there's a P D F that Jeff has kindly put together which you can get at self-publishing formula.com/speech. God, I feel we could have gone on for about two hours. We have our kind of 40 minute roll on interviews, but I dunno, maybe we'll get you back to a webinar at some point, Jeff, because I think we could learn. I
Jeff Elkins: Would love to come back whenever. Yeah, yeah, that'd be great. And I, I you know, at the, I we really, the book that just came out as the dialogue Doctor, we'll see you now.
James Blatch: Yes. Yeah, yeah. It's give us, sorry. Give us a good, good plug of this book. Yeah. You earned it.
Jeff Elkins: Yeah. The book is the Dialogue, doctor, we'll see you now. And in there I cover like, Hey, here's how dialogue lays out on the page. Here are the different components of dialogue we talk about. I talk about character voice, like here's what a character voice is. I talk about like, here's how you modulate the character voice to like, create emotions in the scene. We talk about character growth and we talk about like even cast building and how you arrange your cast members to inspire character growth. So how you like organise character voices in order to get the plot points through that you want to get through. So that's all in the book and I, I love talking about it. I could go on for like another two or three
James Blatch: Hours if we Yeah. Yeah. It's been great. I could as well. So the dialogue doctor will see you now. Available at all. Good bookshops.
Jeff Elkins: Yep. Thanks Ben.
James Blatch: Jeff Elkins. Brilliant. Thank you Jeff so much indeed. Have a great rest of the day. And yeah, James,
Jeff Elkins: Thanks for having
James Blatch: Me. Yeah, we really appreciate the time you've taken to join us.
Speaker 1: This is the self-publishing Show. There's never been a better time to be a writer.
James Blatch: There you go. He said, she said, they said that is Jeff Elkins. And to remind you again that you can get download that P d f very helpful, p d f to help you with your writing and dialogue at self-publishing formula.com/speech. Good. Mark Dawson, well you are back in Blighty. I'm going to Paris tomorrow for a flying visit, just one day to bit of book research. While I'm there, I'm going to the Le Boer Air and Space Museum, obviously, obviously. Yeah. One of my favourites
Also. I've I need I really need to visit this to do this, but I'm going to anyway in my work in progress, Susie's a bit of a fashion addict and, and she works out, A dead body is wearing a coat that could only have come from the latest Dior collection in Paris. And Dior have been in the same building since the 1930s. So I'm going to check out that area. Or she's going to go to Paris and somehow worm her way inside and find out who bought that coat, which is going to be a Are
Mark Dawson: They going to let you in
James Blatch: ? I think it is actually a shop. But they might look at me in my, in my Star Wars t-shirt and say non
Mark Dawson: Exactly,
James Blatch: Non be like, pretty woman, I'll come back the next day. You made a big mistake,
Mark Dawson: . Yeah. Okay. Right. There's some image I didn't need on a Monday morning. Yeah,
James Blatch: Yeah, yeah. Okay. Look, thank you very much indeed to the team who put this podcast together. That's John who edits it. And Catherine and Tom and Stewart. And thank you very much indeed, particularly to Jeff Elkins, who was a brilliant interviewee this week. That's it from us. All that remains for me to say is it's a goodbye from him
Mark Dawson: And a goodbye from me. Goodbye. Goodbye.
Speaker 1: Get show notes, the podcast archive and free resources to boost your writing career at self-publishing show.com. Join our thriving Facebook group at self-publishing show.com/facebook. Support the [email protected] slash self-publishing show. And join us next week for more help and inspiration so that you can make your mark as a successful indie author, author publishing is changing. Get your words into the world and join the revolution with the Self-Publishing Show.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
Grab Your SPF Freebies!
Sign up to receive your SPF starter package, which includes a free 3 part video series on getting started with FB ads, and inspirational and educational weekly emails.