Tag Archives: Elmore Leonard

Tips for Writing Dialogue

Talk is cheap.

It’s one of the great truisms in life. It’s also the name of a really good album by Keith Richards (he of the Rolling Stones) but that’s a discussion for another day.  talk is cheap

When it comes to writing novels, however, talk is where the money’s at.

Whether you’re writing sci-fi, romance or horror – if your dialogue doesn’t ring true you may find people talking about your work in ways that aren’t very flattering.

I began reading recreationally while I was in college (way back when), prior to that I avoided books like the plague because the books assigned to me in high school English Lit class held very little appeal to me (shameful behavior which I talk about here).

While I was in college I accidentally began reading Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. His descriptions of small town life reminded me of my own upbringing (I guess a small town in Maine and one in Rhode Island have lots in common) so the story captured my interest, but the dialogue was the thing that grabbed me.

I remember thinking “Wow! You can write books like this?”

King was only the tip of the iceberg, though. Eventually I stumbled onto Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty and that was all she wrote for me – my love of reading was immediately catapulted into a desire to write.

One of the predominant themes running through my list of favorite authors is the ability to craft realistic dialogue.

Leonard, King, Koontz, Dorsey, Hiassen, Evanovich and Grisham to name a few.

Dialogue, in my opinion, can make or break a story.

boring dialogue

Actually, let me revise that statement.

Good dialogue will not save a poorly written story…but bad dialogue will certainly ruin a well written one.

I’ve never spoken to any of the authors listed above about their methods, but I can reverse engineer just about anything – and through reverse engineering I’ve figured out a few simple tricks for writing dialogue…


Know your characters and know how they would talk

Elmore Leonard’s characters are not the cream of society. Most of them are urban criminals who tend to have very little use for proper English and even less use for a moral compass, so their speech, as one might imagine, is filled with contractions, slang and cursing. It also violates practically every rule of grammar ever written – and probably a few that haven’t been written yet.

get shorty

Grammar violations notwithstanding…when you read an Elmore Leonard novel it’s the dialogue of the characters that keeps the story moving and keeps you turning pages. Elmore never needed to waste words describing extraneous crap, because his dialogue put you in the story so deeply you could see, hear, smell, touch and taste everything.

In stark contrast to Elmore’s revolving door of degenerates…take John Grisham’s Harvard educated lawyers and white collar criminals. Their speech is representative of their social standing and upbringing, which make his stories ring true.

write goodly

Now if you were to insert Leonard’s dialogue, as well written as it is, into a Grisham novel – well, let’s just say that Tom Cruise would have had one less movie on his resume.

Make sure each character has their own way

Listen to people when they talk – it’s the best way to learn how to write dialogue – and you don’t have to listen very long to see that each of us has our own little idiosyncrasies.

Me, personally…I tend to use the phrase what-not fairly often. I used to work with a guy who, for some strange reason, began many of his sentences with the word anyways.

Think of your characters as individuals with their own speech habits. Maybe one of them mispronounces a word (or words), another might have a habit of using the wrong word in an effort to make his vocabulary sound impressive.

Paying attention to such small details will make your characters seem more like real people, which will help your reader become more invested in them, and, in turn, your book…and what-not.

Keeping it real can be done without getting too real

You want your written dialogue to sound as though it was transcribed from an actual conversation, but, there are limits to how much of that conversation you want to record.

When most people talk they subconsciously insert fillers into their sentences—such as: like, uh, & you know.

I think most of us hear these things so often that our brains tend to block them out. We hear them, but we process the sentence as though they weren’t there.

Even though these fillers are a natural part of our everyday speech, they would be extremely unnatural, and really annoying, in written dialogue.

So, uh…leave them, like, out.

Regional dialects, slang terms and cursing can be overdone

If your novel is set in the south, it can be very tempting to throw in a bunch of y’alls or have your character say things like fixin to. While it may be geographically correct, too much of it will annoy your readers.

yoda says

The same applies to slang. Naturally, a little bit of slang will definitely make your dialogue ring true, but there is a fine line between a little bit and too much. Overdo it and your readers will start skimming over it.

Cursing and foul language is a similar situation, but, in my opinion, a much more difficult one to gauge. Not only do you have to try to use the right amount to sound genuine and still avoid being annoying, but you also have to worry about offending people. This is where you have to think about what your character would say, as well as how much your audience will tolerate before they throw your book into the recycle bin.

Remember that your reader can’t see ‘tone of voice’

If you subscribe to the anti-adverb school of writing, you’ll find yourself facing another dialogue challenge…conveying the character’s tone of voice. Vocal inflections, smirks, smiles, frowns, grins and other indicators of the intent behind our speech can’t be conveyed in written dialogue, and you’ll be drummed out of the writer’s union if you over-use attributions like he said facetiously. There’s only one way to solve this particular conundrum…sharpening your character development skills. Craft your characters skillfully and your readers will know them well enough to interpret the unspoken meaning behind their words.

Pay attention to the calendar

I was talking to an editor recently. The topic of dialogue in novels came up (covert research on my part for this post!) and she told me about her biggest pet peeve…make sure your dialogue is historically appropriate!

I’m sure none of you need to be told that if your novel takes place in the Victorian age or colonial America you need to be historically accurate, after all it would have seemed a little out of place if Rhett Butler had said “Check it, bitch, I don’t give a fat rat’s ass.”

But there’s more to it than just covering the big chunks of history. Here in America slang phrases come and go faster than iPhones, so what is accurate today could be painfully outdated a year from now.

The editor I mentioned told me she had been working on a novel written from the point-of-view of a teenage girl. The problem was that the author (a baby-boomer) failed in her attempt to capture the lingo of a modern day teenager; instead the dialogue all sounded like it was straight out of the sixties.

Moral of the story…in addition to using jargon sparingly, make sure it’s accurate for the time period of your book, whether it’s last week, last year or the last century.

Unless your character is a robot, don’t make him/her speak like one

This last one is sort of a mop-up, catch-all tip. It incorporates a few of the previously mentioned ones, but deals with real-talk.

As I said earlier, listen to people talk.

Nobody says: “I am going to go to the store. Would you like me to purchase something for you?”


They say: “I’m going to the store. Want anything?”

Contractions may be a lazy way of speaking but we all use them…all the time.

When it comes to dialogue, the contraction is your friend…

Instead of I am, he would, she will and they are – use I’m, he’d, she’ll and they’re…because that’s how people talk.

There you have it…my nickel’s worth of free advice.

I hope it’s useful to you – and if you have any tips for writing dialogue please feel free to share them in the comments section.

As always – thank you for reading


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Kill Your Darlings (maybe I misunderstood)

“Kill your darlings.”

If you’ve been in the writing game for any length of time you’ve heard this quote. Some people attribute it to Allen Ginsberg, others to William Faulkner, some believe Stephen King said it. The earliest known use of the phrase actually came from Arthur Quiller-Couch, who used it in his 1913-1914 Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.”

darlingsRegardless of who said it when…the context of the quote is the need for writers to be relentless in the editing of their work…to eliminate unnecessary fluff…to get rid of every paragraph, sentence and word that doesn’t contribute something essential to the story.

Given the work of King, Faulkner and the others, I’d say it’s advice worth following.

I think I may have taken it a bit too literally while working on a short story this week. The story will be included in my upcoming anthology tentatively titled The Path of a Bullet. The stories in the anthology will focus on my anti-hero, Ike. Most of them will be written by me and there will be a few written by other writers who happen to be fans of Ike.

As I was writing this particular story I decided to kill one of the characters who has appeared in all of my books.

The killing wasn’t necessary.

I could have made the story work without having a good character meet their demise.

It also wasn’t gratuitous.

I think the story is much better because of it.

Either way…it’s still tough to kill one of your darlings.

When I wrote my first novel, Living the Dream, I created what would inadvertently become a cast of characters who worked together to right wrongs perpetrated upon innocent people.

Living the DreamThe unlikely band of Samaritans is led by the aforementioned Ike, an ex-Navy SEAL who has a tendency to bend the rules a bit in order to see that order is preserved. As one reader described him in a review… “Robin Hood on a Harley.”

Ike is the right-hand-man to a wheelchair bound bookie named Ralph Donabedian. Despite the fact that Ralph is, for all intents and purposes, a criminal, he is the unofficial mayor of Flagler Beach. Nothing happens in the small beachside community unless he allows it.

Whenever Ike needs help he calls on his best friend, and resident bad-ass, Brewski. With ties to a local motorcycle gang and a bit of an attitude problem, Brewski tends to lean toward a shoot first, shoot again, have a cigarette, and then ask questions policy. Fortunately, Ike keeps him reined in…most of the time.

Perpetually perched on the back of Brewski’s Harley is Didi—a wise-cracking, chain-smoking, no-nonsense biker-bitch who would like to slap the stupid out of everybody (because everybody is a dumb-ass).

Making fewer appearances than the others, but nonetheless an important member of the group is Bob Butler. Another close friend of Ike’s, Bob Butler (who is always addressed by both his first and last names, never one or the other) is an honest family man who turns a blind eye to some questionable tactics out of respect for Ike’s motives.

So, as I was saying…I recently wrote a short story for my Ike anthology and I decided that it was time to kill one of my darlings.

I’m not going to tell you which one, you’ll have to read the book to find out. For now I’ll just call them “X” (pretty dramatic, huh?).

I will tell you this—it’s not Ike – that would be like Elmore Leonard killing Raylan Givens…Robert B. Parker killing Spenser or JK Rowling killing Harry Potter.

Moving forward I’ll have to figure out what, if anything, I should do to fill the void left by X. Fortunately writing books is not like cooking. If you don’t have a key ingredient required by your recipe you could end up tipping a driver for delivering your meal.

With books, the loss of a character does not have to be the end of the story. In fact it could lead to a new, maybe even better story.

I guess we’ll find out when I write my next book.

Between you and me, I’ve already got an idea of how to move forward and I’m pretty sure it will be a seamless transition.

In the meantime, The Path of a Bullet is scheduled to be released before Christmas. My beta-readers have enjoyed all of the stories so far, so I’m sure you will too.

This is not the cover of Path of a Bullet...it's just a cool picture.

This is not the cover of Path of a Bullet…it’s just a cool picture.


As always – thank you for reading


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