Thursday, September 29, 2011

I’ve Got Rhythm – Random Thoughts on Writing Dialogue

I think most of you know I am a classically trained musician. The fact I see and hear rhythm in the written word is a carryover from the hours and hours spent studying rhythm, counterpoint, dynamics, tempo and all of the things which transform words and music into art.

In opera (Don’t run away screaming. Opera is our friend.) the portions which are not arias or ensemble pieces are called recitativo – a style of delivery in which the singer is allowed to adopt the rhythms of ordinary speech. It is still sung. There is still music with the words. The music may be sparse - recitativo secco ("dry", accompanied only by continuo) or it may be quite lovely, full and reflect what is being sung - recitativo accompagnato (using orchestra.) This is the main difference between opera and musicals.

What does all of this have to do with dialogue? Quite a bit actually. In going over judges’ sheets from the contests I’ve entered over the years, I’ve discovered the one thing I actually do pretty well is dialogue. And here are some of the things I think have helped me tremendously.


For me, words have always had a musical rhythm to them. When I write a long passage of dialogue, I read it out loud. If I stumble, if the words don’t flow, then I’ve done something wrong. I read it again, find the word I stumbled on and try to find another word that completes the rhythm.

“Yes, well were I luckier in love she would have enjoyed my favors long enough to complete the roof.”

“If you were truly lucky she would die and leave you everything.”

Cain snorted. “That will never happen. I have it on the best authority she intends to take everything she holds most dear with her.”

“Everything?” Barclay glanced in the general direction of Cain’s groin.

“Why haven’t I fired you?”

“You can’t pay my severance.”

“I knew there was a good reason.”

This exchange has a give and take rhythm between the characters. It has minimal tags, but you get the relationship between these two men. And a lot of it has to do with the rhythm of the exchange, especially those last three lines.


This one is easy. Male characters, especially alpha males, speak in short sentences. They use strong verbs. They are opinionated. They are definite. And the only time they stammer or get tongue-tied is when the heroine makes them that way.

Female characters speak in longer sentences. They explain more, usually because the hero is kind of dense. Their language is more creative, more emotional (not overly so, I hate mushy, whiny heroines!) and the only time they stammer or get tongue-tied is when the hero ticks them off.

Most important, the dialogue must match your hero or heroine’s character. If you know your characters really well you will discover they have patterns of speech. Stick to those. You created them when you created the character and they really help!

When you read through you dialogue and something appears wrong, it may be you’ve put words in their mouths they would never say. They hate it when you do that. And sometimes they get so ticked they stop talking. This is bad.


This is the fun part! If you want examples of great dialogue put on your favorite DVD and pay attention to the dialogue. See if you can catch the rhythm of it. Better yet, read some of your favorite books – the ones where the dialogue makes you laugh or cry. What kind of tags were used, if any? What patterns of speech?

Julia Quinn has done a workshop on dialogue at RWA Nationals a couple of times. If you can, attend the workshop or listen to it on the CD’s. It is a marvel. Read any of her books, especially the Bridgerton series, and you will see exactly what she is talking about.

Do any of you have any tricks or methods you use to keep your dialogue fresh? Any masters of dialogue you want to recommend in either films or novels?


Darynda said...

FUN, FUN, Louisa!!!! I love dialogue and with practice and lots of reading, I think most anyone can pick up that cadence that is so important in fun, realistic repartee.


Olivia Kelly said...

I love reading Julia Quinn and Lisa Kleypas, and to me, they are masters of dialogue! I don't have any special tricks, I just try to read it back, and if it amuses or moves me, than I leave. I had experiences though, where I have had to erase entire paragraphs, half a chapter once (!!!), because the dialogue bored me. Never a good sign. I figure, if it bores ME, than it will without a doubt bore any readers.

AvonLadyJerrica said...

Great post, Louisa! Having studied and performed in classical music and musical theater, I think I might have a similar advantage to yours. Dialog is my favorite part of writing. I love getting in the character's head, and when I'm *really* in it, the dialog simply flows. It's like magic :)

Ava Stone said...

Love the blog, Lousia! Years ago I was screenwriting. And in screenplays there is only dialogue and action. (No descriptions unless absolutely necessary to the story.) So when you're only working with dialogue, I think you find a rhythm very naturally because you aren't delving into thoughts, descriptions, or explanations. So I think often just reading the dialouge and skipping everything else is a helpful tool to see if the rhythm and pacing of the dialogue works.

As for examples of great dialogue... I LOVE classic movies. Something like IT HAPPENED ON NIGHT or BRINGING UP BABY has such a zippy cadence and natural rhythm that shines!

Callie James said...

Great post, Louisa!

When I'm not feeling the dialogue, I watch When Harry Met Sally and somehow work through it. Love that movie! :)

Lexi said...

Dialogue is the fun part, to me. It's the body language part that makes me pull my hair out. You can only have so many shrugs, nods and blinks.

Gwynlyn said...

Great post, Louisa! Rhythm is everywhere and influences us in so many ways; to this day, when I hear a marching cadence, the band geek in me can't help but match it. The same applies, I think, to good dialogue; it pulls the reader along without even being aware of being impelled. The power of music is a given, and rhythm is the foundation.

Carla Swafford said...

To me, smooth writing is using a rhythm. I guess that's why songs inspire some of my stories.

I have to remind myself to get out of my character's head and let him or her talk. :-) So often after finishing my book, I'll go back and look for the long passages of narrative and change or insert dialogue.

Warren Bull said...

Old movies are great for dialogue. How about The Philadelphia Story and Treasure of the Sierra Madre?

Louisa Cornell said...

Hello, Darynda, my fabulous Ruby Sister! Speaking of snappy dialogue, your Charlie is the queen of the snappy comeback. Your First Grave on the Right is a great source of dialogue with a definite rhythm all its own!

Louisa Cornell said...

Olivia, I think you are on to something there! Reading your dialogue and realizing it is boring is not as easy as it sounds. The fact you can admit when it is boring and go back and fix it makes you the kind of writer people want to read!

Louisa Cornell said...

And the magic shows in your dialogue, Jerrica. And getting into the character's head makes it so much easier to hear what he or she would or would not say. It's almost like you're channeling them!

Louisa Cornell said...

Oh, screenwriting has got to be a real advantage when crafting dialogue. I can see that in your work. And Bringing Up Baby is one of my favorite films!

Louisa Cornell said...

Callie, there is some great dialogue in When Harry Met Sally! And I think having a particular film as a "go-to" when some aspect of our writing is bugging us is a great idea!

Louisa Cornell said...

Lexi, you write some of the funniest dialogue I have ever read. For a lesson in comic timing in dialogue - Southern style - you can't do any better than reading Demon Hunting in Dixie.

But I definitely understand the problem body language can pose. I am constantly checking to be sure my poor hero or heroine doesn't sound like their having a seizure with all of the shrugging, nodding and eyebrow raising going on.

Louisa Cornell said...

Great insight Gwyn! The rhythm of language is all around us if we just slow down and listen.

And as a fellow band geek I understand completely the need to match that old 8 to 5 marching step when you hear the band!

Louisa Cornell said...

Oh now, Carla, that is a good idea. Checking long passages of narrative for spots to put in dialogue is smart. Making a note of that one!

Louisa Cornell said...

Two great choices there, Warren! I especially love The Philadelphia Story. Is it just me, or do those old movies have much better dialogue than some of the newer ones?

I remember and old Mae West movie. Her character walks into a hotel to check in - dressed to the nines and dripping in jewels. She has this huge diamond hanging strategically in her cleavage. The girl at the hotel desk takes one look at it and says "Oh my goodness!" Mae doesn't say a word. She turns, walks up the stairs and at the top turns back and says "Goodness had nothing to do with it."

Is that a great line, or what?

Kat Jones said...

Great post Louisa! I agree-writing definitely has a rhythm.

Louisa Cornell said...

Thanks, Kat! Your Chocolate story definitely has a rhythm all its own! Love it!

A man called Valance said...

'Female characters speak in longer sentences.'

Well that's a surprise.

'They explain more, usually because the hero is kind of dense.'

Tain't so. Female characters explain more 'cause that's what females do. Chances are the poor hero ain't dumb, he's just exasperated.

Interesting post Louisa. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Elmore Leonard. He's incredible. Also Shakespeare.

Louisa Cornell said...

LOL A Man Called Valance!

I stand corrected! Exasperation would definitely curb a man's tongue.

Louisa Cornell said...


Elmore Leonard definitely has rhythm in spades! Some of the most clever dialogue ever.

And Shakespeare! Of course! Why didn't I think of him. The King of Snappy Repartee!