Sometimes it feels like it doesn’t seem to matter what you try, the dialogue in your stories falls flat and it’s affecting your sales. Your characters all sound the same and their voices don’t change regardless of what is happening in the story.
We get it. We’ve been there.
Hi. I’m Jeff Elkins.
I remember the first dialogue simulation I wrote—a program meant to mimic a conversation with a sixty-five-year-old man who’d just lost his son—one that allowed counselors to practice talking to grieving people. I’d worked on it for months, toiling away at my keyboard, dreaming of the moment when I would present it to my client and they would celebrate my efforts. As I rode the DC subway to deliver my draft of the dialogue, my heart raced and my stomach filled with a mixture of hopeful anticipation and anxiety. By the time I’d arrived, I was so nervous that sweat-stained the pits of my suit coat.
Sitting in their office, I watched as they played the conversation I’d spent months of my life developing. As they read my script, their faces went slack, which made my heart sink. They didn’t celebrate. They didn’t cheer or declare my script to be a masterpiece. Instead, they looked at each other in uncomfortable silence. My heart raced as I waited to hear their thoughts. Finally, one of them looked at me and said, “It’s a good start, but it just doesn’t feel right.” Then, an onslaught of suggestions followed. “Maybe the character needs to be stronger?” “Or maybe if we threw in a few mumbles or something?” “Oo. I’ve got it, guys. We need to give him more backstory. Like, maybe he’s a war vet.” As they offered suggestions and “help,” a knot formed in my gut. I wanted to rip my laptop from the table and run out of the room. My only job had been to write a realistic and compelling character, and I’d failed.
That night, I returned to an empty office. I sat at my desk, in the dark, in front of my three glowing monitors, staring hopelessly at the hundreds of lines of crappy dialogue I’d created. I read each one quietly to myself, desperately searching for some clue as to where I’d gone wrong. As I scoured the script, I realized that each one felt right to me, each line rang true to my voice—and that was the problem. My simulation was suffering from mono-mouth. It was supposed to be a conversation between a trained counselor and a grieving 65-year-old man who’d recently lost his twenty-two-year-old son, but it sounded like a 30-something-year-old writer talking to a 30-something-year-old writer who was pretending to grieve a make-believe 30-something-year-old writer.
I went back to the drawing board and obsessed over empathizing with my character. I focused on making my character’s dialogue sound realistic and engaging, understanding the emotional state of my character, and getting inside my character’s head. Two months later, when I brought the simulation before the client again, they were ecstatic.
“This is it.”
“You nailed it.”
“I feel like I’m talking to my dad.”
Six years later, that conversation is still being played by thousands of counselors every year.
Since that first simulation, I’ve served as lead writer on over twenty simulations, mimicking the voices of people from every walk of life. Now, when I write dialogue for a client, they can’t stop talking about how real the character feels. Readers get completely absorbed in the conversation, play the simulation repeatedly, and ask for more.
Not only do I work on dialogue every day, but I write it most nights as well. In my spare time, I’ve published 11 novels and more than 100 short stories. I know what it feels like to be an author because I am one, just like you.
Hi. I’m Laura Humm.
Almost 20 years ago, I got promoted to Script Engineer at a brand new company creating computer-based role-plays for training. I was so excited to wear the suit I bought for my interview a second time, and travel to the FBI Academy seemed unreal. I was so nervous, I forgot a notepad and pen!
When I arrived, I sat with experts who quoted experiences off the top of their heads. Almost always starting with, “And then they’d say…” I wrote it down. It was great! Someone told me what the character would say, and I wrote it down. Whenever I got stumped on what to write, I called my expert partner and asked, “What does he say now?” About halfway through the project, I learned the character’s voice, and ventured into creation, knowing the experts would review every line of dialogue I wrote.
Then we started another project. All my prep and practice writing a middle-aged man who grew up in a foreign country meant nothing. I was supposed to write a 30-year-old married victim of domestic violence. I was about as prepared for that as I was for my first character. Then came the prosecutor and defense attorney, and the forensic scientist, and the woman in her early fifties with a problem with alcohol. Then 100 more characters. Each experienced the world differently, which meant they spoke and reacted to the world differently. And I got to study how people really talk with people who spent their whole careers talking with people.
Just as I started to get a feel for creating and writing characters with different backgrounds, needs, and goals, my role changed again. I found myself in charge of teaching other people to write new dialogue. I tried teaching how I had been taught. I found myself saying, “And then they’d say this…” a lot. But I quickly realized that my team needed more. They needed to understand why people talk differently, and how to make subtle changes in language to convey differences in characters. So, I started playing with language like “cadence” and “pacing” and descriptions like “guttural” and “cerebral” to describe the differences in voice.
Then, Jeff asked me to beta read a book. I was so honored, but I didn’t feel at all qualified. Sure, I’d read thousands of books and created dozens of characters for training programs, but giving notes on someone else’s art was a whole different story. After reading the first half of the book, I realized that the stuff I knew about voices could also be applied to fiction.
Since then, I’ve edited five books, worked with numerous clients, and have helped countless authors discover their character voices. While I’m not a fiction writer, I love discovering new characters and helping writers like you create voices that readers love.