Hi. I’m Jeff Elkins.
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.
I get it. I’ve been there.
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.