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How to create conversational dialogue

By March 24, 2014Blog, Industry

Over the weekend, author Ursula Pearson sent me the manuscript for the sequel to Soulene, one of a small number of fiction titles published by i30 Media. Soulene is set in feudal times, and tells the story of 16-year-old girl mastering the healing arts as an apprentice of Hospice de Coeur Rouge, known as the Red Heart Healers by the local peasantry. Using a backdrop of 12th-century English and French history, Pearson weaves a fascinating tale about a young woman discovering her identity in troubled times. The sequel, called “Soulene II” in its draft state, continues the story of the young healer, and her trials and tribulations in early medieval Europe.

Image from blog of Professor Steven Graff of CUNYIn this blog post, I am going to describe an issue that I spotted in parts of the draft manuscript for Soulene II: Dialogue that doesn’t seem conversational. It happened a few times, usually with new characters whose relationships with established characters hadn’t been fleshed out. I gave Pearson some suggestions on how to turn these one-sided passages into true dialogue, and I am going to share my way of handling it, using an example from the manuscript.

The issue that Pearson experienced is a common scenario for authors. How do you write conversations that carry the plot along? There’s a character, and he or she has something to say, but when it comes out, it’s more like a long statement or speech. To readers, it doesn’t seem realistic — nobody talks like that in real life! But it’s also a missed opportunity to develop the characters involved.

Here’s a sample from the first draft of Soulene II. The speaker is Lucille, and she is describing to Soulene some of the changes taking place in and around the hospice they will be working at.

“Ah, that’s the first big change. The population has been growing at an amazing pace. A new Cathedral is being built in Poitiers. All the stonemasons, laborers and their families have come to live and work in this area. The shrine, at the Church of St. Hillaire was recently rebuilt and more and more pilgrims have come to the Hospice. Of course, the Crusaders are always passing through, either returning from the Holy Land, or beginning their journey. The Directress recently announced that twelve new acolytes will be accepted this year and that three senior trainees will remain at the Hospice every second year. Coeur Rouge trainees will no longer go to England for at least the next five years until our staffing issues here are resolved. Think of what this means. We’ll need larger living quarters for our instructors and trainees, more beds, bigger gardens. I could go on and on about the changes that will occur. But we are thrilled that our Hospice mission has become even more important.”

This isn’t a conversation. At nearly 200 words long, it’s an address. It’s too long, and too one sided. People don’t talk this way.

But this is an important passage. The speaker, Lucille, has experienced terrible personal tragedy. She is finally opening up to Soulene, and Soulene wants to put her at ease. Further, there is an opportunity to show the personality and character of both young women. Here’s my alternate version:

“Ah, that’s the first big change,” said Lucille, jabbing a grimy finger in the air. ”The population has been growing at an amazing pace, and a new Cathedral is being built in Poitiers.”

Soulene smiled. “Our Lord has truly blessed Poitiers and its people,” she exclaimed. “I can’t wait to see it.”

“That’s not all,” continued Lucille. “All the stone masons, laborers and their families have come to live and work in this area. The shrine, at the Church of St. Hillaire was recently rebuilt and more and more pilgrims have come to the Hospice.” She gestured with her hands to indicate the height and breadth of the new structures.

“It sounds more like Paris than Poitiers!” Soulene joked.

Lucille nodded. “Some day it will rival the great city. Militarily, it already is. The Crusaders are always passing through, either returning from the Holy Land, or beginning their journey.”

“What about the Order?” Soulene asked.

Her companion answered, “The Directress recently announced that twelve new acolytes will be accepted this year and that three senior trainees will remain at the Hospice every second year.”

“Our Lord smiles upon on us!”

“Yes,” Lucille agreed. “But there will be some adjustments. Coeur Rouge trainees will no longer go to England for at least the next five years until our staffing issues here are resolved.”

Soulene’s brow furrowed. “What does this mean, in practical terms?” she asked.

Lucille enumerated the changes. “First, we’ll need larger living quarters for our instructors and trainees, and more beds.” She said. “Second, bigger gardens. Third …. Actually, I could go on and on about the changes that will occur. But we are thrilled that our Hospice mission has become even more important.”

I took some liberties with my characterizations, and Pearson will probably end up throwing a lot of it away, but I wanted to impart how big statements can be turned into true dialogue.

If you’re interested in learning more about Soulene, the title is available on Amazon in paperback and as a Kindle edition. Soulene II will be released this spring.

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