Episode 157 – A Conversation with Jeff Elkins The Dialogue Doctor

In this episode Mark chats with Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor, about the importance of solid dialogue for characterization, moving a plot along, and creating a bestselling novel.

Prior to the interview, Mark shares shares comments from recent episodes, welcomes new Patron, Macy Dixon, offers a personal update, and says a word about this episode’s sponsor…

You can learn more about how you can get your work distributed to retailers and library systems around the world at

During their conversation, Mark and Jeff talk about:

  • What good dialogue is going to do for your book
  • The fundamental way that two people connect with one another, which is usually through conversation
  • The reader engagement that comes for characters because of solid dialogue
  • How Jeff filled a gap in the writing craft realm by focusing on dialogue
  • Jeff’s background writing conversation simulations and how that lead to his expertise in dialogue
  • The way a person changes the way they speak when in different moods, anxious situations, circumstances
  • Being intention with our dialogue when writing
  • Peter Parker’s dialogue as a shy nerd and behind the mask of Spider-man
  • The concept of “putting the character in your mouth”
  • The term “mono-mouth” used to describe multiple characters speaking in the exact same voice (the writer)
  • Jeff’s research on bestsellers and how many of them usually have less than four paragraphs between passages of dialogue
  • How both John Grisham novels and Pride and Prejudice both have about 70% dialogue in them
  • If your plot and the twists and turns are the bones, then dialogue is the muscle
  • The value of taking out the “summaries” in your fiction rather than SHOWING that scene
  • An example of a brilliant character reveal through dialogue in Toni Morrison’s novel BELOVED
  • The free download authors can get at Jeff’s website on the five biggest mistakes authors often make in dialogue
  • What you can get for signing up for Jeff’s newsletter
  • The services that Jeff offers for authors
  • A new program/offering that Jeff is launching
  • Jeff’s new podcast where he shares ongoing dialogue sessions, advice, and tips

After the interview, Mark shares an offer from Jeff (the ability to get a 1 hour $99 booking for $75 by mentioning the Stark Reflections Podcast), and Mark shares a few reflections about things Jeff made him think about.

Links of Interest:

Jeff Elkins writes stories with engaging and diverse characters that help people escape the stress of the real world. He has published eleven novels and hundreds of short stories and lives in Baltimore, Maryland with his wife and five kids. A graduate of Baylor University and Truett Seminary, Jeff has been writing dialogue simulation for several years and has recently adapted this knowledge, and his writing experience, into a fantastic, and much-needed service for authors called The Dialogue Doctor.

The introductory, end, and bumper music for this podcast (“Laser Groove”) was composed and produced by Kevin MacLeod of and is Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

Below is an automated transcription of the interview segment of this episode.

(The transcription has not been human-verified)

(Time stamps in [] are not indicative of the time in the overall episode, but in the interview portion of the episode)

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:00:00] Hey, Jeff. Thanks so much for hanging out with me today.

Jeff Elkins: [00:00:02] Absolutely.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:00:03] I’m super excited to be here. So I’m tempted to ask like a cheeky question related to dialogue. Like, Hey, what’s the word on the street, but, but there is what is the word on the street yet? But there’s, you’ve got so much news since the last time we spoke.

Jeff Elkins: [00:00:17] That’s the best. I love it. Um, yeah. Sorry. I’m just, whenever I start talking to you, I always think about all the massive ways that you’ve helped me. Um, so I get to run through those first, before we ask any questions.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:00:28] Okay.

Jeff Elkins: [00:00:30] Because if you haven’t gone to buy your seven steps book, like. It’s amazing. Um, and of course the title is slipping my mind

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:00:40] The 7 P’s, but thank you.

Jeff Elkins: [00:00:42] P’s of publishing. And then it’s an amazing book. I loved it.

Jeff Elkins: [00:00:46] Super helpful. And, um, yeah, also your Kobo, uh, book like

Jeff Elkins: [00:00:51] six, how does successful publish on Kobo? It was a massive boom to me, help me go wide with my books. So it was really great.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:00:58] So I, now that we’ve laid the foundation for publishing the Kobo and publishing what you need, as I  understand.

To, to have a really good manuscript to have a really good novel that’s going to sell. One of the most fundamental aspects is people. In dialogue with one another.

Jeff Elkins: [00:01:15]Well done there. Nice flip you’re making me talk about myself. Um, yeah, so let’s, um, let’s talk about like what the word, when we say like what the word on the street is.

Let’s talk for a second about what the dialogue is going to do for your book. Yeah. Yeah.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:01:28] What is this dialogue going to do for your

Jeff Elkins: [00:01:30] book? Yeah, let’s lay a foundation. So like the, and we’re going to take it all the way back to like philosophy of how you connect with another person. Okay. Right. Like how, how does, how does anyone connect to each other?

And the way we connect to each other is verbally, or we are verbal creatures. So when you go out on your first date, right? Like you don’t stand at a park and stare at one another in silence. I mean, some people might, but they’re having terrible. First days. What you do is you go find somewhere that’s like a neutral location where there’s like a little amount of anxiety.

That’s like not going to add to the anxiety of the date already set and you talk. Briefly because it’s through talking that we get to know one another, right? So it just naturally all of your readers are verbal creatures. They get to know each other and they get to know the world around them by talking about it.

Uh, and so when they engage with your book, they are engaging with your characters and they’re engaging with your narrative and they’re engaging with the emotions that are happening in your book. Through the dialogue, because that’s just who we are. So they are lit as they are listening to your character speak.

And I do mean listening because they’re reading the words and they’re putting those words into their brains and then they’re translating in their brains. What that voice sounds like. So they’re literally. Putting your characters where it’s in their brains, as they’re doing that and listening to your characters words, they’re making assumptions and drawing conclusions and ideally falling in love with her for protagonist and coming to hate your antagonist, right?

Like they’re, they’re moving through your, they’re making an emotional connection to your story through the dialogue in your story. So if we can knowing that if we can capitalize on that dialogue, And we can use that dialogue strategically and write dialogue with them, tension, understanding what it’s saying about our characters and understanding what it’s saying about the emotions in our book and use our dialogue to intentionally convey the emotions we want to convey and to convey the changes in our characters.

We want to change, right? Like getting this strategic mindset around writing dialogue, then we can have these books that just have this powerful, emotional impact on our reader. And engage our readers in new and exciting ways. Right? So my dream for a book that I write is that, like, we all know that like the cover draws people in and the description draws people in.

But my dream is that after they read a book, say, I need more of those characters. I need, I need to spend more time with them, that character, because I love that character so much. And the way we get that kind of engagement and that kind of reaction from a reader is we get it by being intentional and strategic with our dialogue.

So by focusing on dialogue, we can increase our readers engagement with our characters, which increases and with the emotional flow of the book, which increases the likelihood that our readers are going to come back to our books over and over and over again. And in the end increases our sales. Right, because if our reader are looking for, I need to buy every book in that series, not because the, not just because the plot was fun and not just because the action was great and not just because it’s the type of genre I want to read, but because I need to get more of that main character, then we’ve now made an attachment to a reader that can last books and books and books and books.

And even if the plot gets stale, they’ll keep coming back for the character. So that’s, that’s why dialogue and why. Um, I am preaching the gospel of dialogue is that

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:05:02] it works. I mean, I never, it’s funny when you say that. Yeah, of course it makes sense. A first date when you’re like, Oh my God, the evening seemed to hours passed.

And it felt like seconds because we were so enraptured in Dallas with one another. That’s what we were, the conversation was so enriching and so fascinating. I

Jeff Elkins: [00:05:20] never. I never thought of it that way. Yeah. And I was, we started, it was so funny to me, Mark. Cause we started talking, I started talking to him about this, you know, in the beginning of the pandemic, back in April, I was talking to our mutual friend, Jay thorn.

And he was like, we were just talking about dialogue and what I do for a living and how I like obsess over dialogue for a living. And he was like, you need to start sharing this. With the author community. And I was like, no, there’s a thousand books out there on that. There’s gotta be like, there’s a ton of books out there on dialogue there’s courses on dialogue.

Look, there’s people doing this. And I went and looked. I was like, you know, Robert McKee has a tome, which like, of course he does. And it’s amazing by the way. So if you want to read a Tom, go get Robert Mickey’s dialogue. Um, but it is incredible, but it is one of those, like, There’s just not a lot of people talking about this right now.

So, um, it’s exciting to be able to kind of bring knowledge I have from another industry into the indie author community, to give people some tools, to take those dreams that they have of books and bring them to life in a new, new way.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:06:25] So when you mentioned that I had to, I turned around, I looked at the books that I have on writing on my bookshelves that I’ve started collecting in the, in the early nineties.

Or eighties, I should say. So shut up. He explained, uh, by William Nobel was one of the, I mean, I think it’s the, all of the, I have hundreds of books on writing. The only book I have on dialogue and that’s fantastic. It’s been, I’m not going to count how many years it’s been since like 1984 when I got it. Um, so you, you come along at a, at a really, really good time.

I think because as we learn all of the different ways that we can make our writing better, this is one that’s subtle and yet so powerful. Now, before we get into the detail, cause I, I just, people probably don’t know your background. Uh, like the last six years, what you’ve been doing as your day job, that directly relates to you.

Being the dialogue doctor and a real doctor, not like dr. Phil or one of those.

Jeff Elkins: [00:07:19] So, yeah. So I’m not a real doctor. I there’s, no, uh,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:07:22] you don’t even play one on TV.

Jeff Elkins: [00:07:24] I don’t even play one on TV. Nobody wants to see my face on TV. Um,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:07:27] so

Jeff Elkins: [00:07:28] yeah, mean you

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:07:29] played a doctor in that YouTube video. I

Jeff Elkins: [00:07:32] did. I had a, I do have, right.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:07:34] If you go to my website,

Jeff Elkins: [00:07:36] I liked dr. Com I will play a dialogue. I will play a doctor on a video for about. Five minutes. Um, yeah, so, uh, I grew up my career actually started working in social justice, um, circles, like, um, you know, helping build, uh, churches after school programs, uh, building charter schools, that kind of stuff.

Um, And then about six years ago, I had this weird pivot where, uh, I, a friend of mine who I’d worked with, I’d worked with in the inner city. He came and said like, Hey, how would you like to come and write for our company? We simulate difficult conversations. And, um, I didn’t think of myself as a writer six years ago, you know, I had been.

Uh, writing a ton of short stories, but I hadn’t, you know, published a book and I was like, yeah, that sounds interesting. So, uh, I’ve been with that company now for six years and yeah, I lead their writing team. Uh, and what we do is we simulate different goal conversations for our professionals to practice.

So my job, I have an amazing job. I sit down with like world experts. Um, so like, for example, if we’re teaching therapists, how to use cognitive behavioral therapy, I get to sit with world experts in cognitive behavioral therapy, and I get to role play with them all day. The blitz, just role play sessions.

I’ll talk like a client and you talk like a  therapist, and then I’ll ask you why you’re saying what you’re saying. And what, why did you use this word and not that word? Why did you use this phrase and not that phrase, what is, what if we changed it to say this phrase, how does that actually impact the client relationship?

Um, and I do it across all kinds of spectrums, right? Like I work with therapists, I work with social workers. I work with, uh, drug addiction counselors. I worked with, I work with law enforcement officers. We work with the military. We work with, uh, people working with children with autism, right? Like it’s just, we work with all, any kind of expert.

We. Stimulate the conversations they have. Uh, and we tell our, my writing team, we talk all the time about how we’re professional mimics. So we study dialogue. Like I met an expert in nothing, but I can mimic anything. So we study dialogue super intensely in order to mimic it in a computer simulation, uh, which is just a different level of thinking about dialogue and words, then it is then we usually do when we write.

Cause when we write, we usually just like, well, this is what naturally comes out. We’re like, that’s how we get the voices. We’re like, Oh, I kind of want this character regress. So I’m going to write a gruff voice and just kind of what naturally comes out of me is what that voice is going to be. And we’re not necessarily really strategic or intensive are, are intentional about the dialogue we’re writing.

So. Bringing the intentionality we have in the simulation world, uh, to, uh, the author world and kind of applying those skills that we’ve learned. Uh, that’s what I’ve been doing for the past six years. And that’s how I’m, that’s what I’m bringing with dialogue doctor, um, is trying to bring that in, uh, kind of playing off the idea of scripts doctor, like the idea that you can give up plot a script to somebody and I’ll fix your plot, you know, sitting down with authors and helping them.

Not just write better dialogue for the piece that they’re working on, but write better dialogue for the rest of their writing career is my goal.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:10:46] One of the things, because I have had the, uh, the, the good fortune to have tried, some of the simulations that you’ve written for is it’s very

Jeff Elkins: [00:10:55] much, it’s

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:10:56] kind of like, you could probably write a, choose your own adventure, but with dialogue.

Cause that’s kinda what it is, right. Where a therapist is practicing. With a client and trying to, and trying to work with them collaboratively. And then you get feedback on where you went wrong if the wrong. So, I mean, it almost feels like you’re not only learn, you’ve not only learned about dialogue, but you’ve probably learned about the pathways and, and plot points.

Jeff Elkins: [00:11:23] Yeah. And plot is interesting. Like it’s interesting carrying over what we do in simulation work to here because our simulations are nonlinear. So there is no plot. Um, you can say anything at any time. And the character, uh, has an artificial emotional model. So, which is really where it comes in handy with dialogue is understanding how people respond to different emotional in different emotional States and how a person moving from one emotional state to another should be change how they speak.

Right. Uh, and then like getting in a deeper level, like with our novels, plotting that intentionally to say like, okay, when the characters usually talking, like when. Bruce. My main character is usually talking, uh, he’s energetic and he’s excited and he really likes to be around people and he’s outgoing, but as anxiety around him increases, how does that impact his voice?

Right? And as you know, as he becomes more vulnerable open, and his guard is let down, how does that impact his voice? And as someone tries to push him into subjects that he doesn’t want to talk about and it becomes increasingly guarded, how does that impact his voice? So like, just starting to understand.

And that’s what we do is we. It’s simulation work is we analyzed how some, how a character’s voice is going to be impacted by all these different emotional States so that we can prepare for that in a conversation. Um, and so w to novels, planning that out, uh, and then intentionally taking. Our characters into those emotional States in our script so that our characters become way more dynamic and they take our readers on an emotional journey.

Uh, either I find really fun. I think it’s

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:12:58] really exciting. See, when you, when you talk about that, you made me think about, um, one of my favorite fictional characters of all time, Peter Parker, as the, as the meek, mild teenager nerd, no friends puts a mask on and. I believe this is probably a character attribute, but he is a wise cracking smart ass when he has the mask on probably.

Because he’s afraid beneath it, everything he has these super powers, but he still is a geeky teenager. Yeah. In the, in the original comics anyways. And, and the wise cracking is

Jeff Elkins: [00:13:34] probably

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:13:35] how he emotionally responds to the fact that, Oh my God, I’m fighting dr. Octopus or the

Jeff Elkins: [00:13:40] vulture and all these.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:13:41] Character and therefore I’m terrified.

And, and, and, and, and, and Liz, my partner is like this, right? She says, the minute she goes in for like a pap smear or any of those, like embarrassing situations with the doctor, she becomes stand up comedian. Right. She’s just like a mile a minute. Cause she just turns on the, because she’s so nervous.

Jeff Elkins: [00:14:00] Yeah,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:14:01] I wonder.

And I wonder if that’s, is that evidence of that

Jeff Elkins: [00:14:04] your percent so like, and when we’re writing a character, like if you were going to write a character like Peter Parker, ideally, you’re going to say like, okay, I’m going to put Peter in stressful and anxious situations. What’s he going to do when he gets into that anxious situation?

And like humor is a defense mechanism is absolutely one of those things. Right. Like, but there’s a lot of, and what’s beautiful about really being intentional with our dialogue is there’s a lot of different defense mechanisms we could use. Right? Like maybe anger is a defense mechanism or maybe shyness is the defense mechanism.

Or maybe like, however, they’re responding to anxiety. Um, maybe it’s inappropriate. Laughter like my, my wife and I joke all the time about how like whenever we go to a funeral, we can’t stop laughing because we just have this super inappropriate laughter when we’re uncomfortable. And it’s that like.

Thinking about that and then bringing that to life in your dialogue in an intentional way, because like you’re saying, like, I think of the, I remember one of the most exciting, uh, Spiderman comics for me when I was a kid was in the civil war. Uh, Comic book where he like took off his mask in front of everybody and like announced who he was.

Um, and I can still visit, utilize those panels of him, like pulling off his mask and there’s no jokes and there’s no laughter and there’s no like sarcasm. It’s just Peter Parker. Revealing the world that he is, and he’s very serious and he’s very straightforward. And that change in his dialogue creates this emotional moment around him as a character that just like, kind of next us.

Like, I still remember it now. Like, you know, how long ago was that? Like 15, 20 years ago? Like, I can still see that scene in my head. And part of that is because, because of the way that character was talking at that second. Right. Like, so I think, um, yeah, all that to say, like dialogue is so powerful for characters and it’s so like drives, uh, our emotional connection to them.

Like, you know, you relating to Peter Parker because he’s funny and humorous. Like that’s what you remember about his character is like, yeah. He’s, you know, joking and teasing and playing with the characters that he likes and something about that kind of communication really attracted you to his character and latched you onto him.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:16:04] So how do. I want to go to just some of the practical nature. So we understand that in different situations, in different emotions, characters, dialogue is going to change depending upon stuff. How, as a writer, when you’re working with a character, how do you come to that determination?

Jeff Elkins: [00:16:24] So there’s a couple ways to do it.

And like the, you know, part of this, I tell writers like, let’s take the type of writer you are and then figure out the skills to fit that. Okay. So if you’re naturally a pantser and you just want to sit on and start writing, right? Like let’s figure out how to put tools around you to help. So I would tell a pantser like write 7,000 words, write, like write your first 5,000 words, get a couple conversations in with your characters and then stop and go back and read and ask yourself, how would I describe this character?

Where like, what would I do? Uh, how w give, give me adjectives that describes the characters voice. And then once you have those three adjectives that describes the characters voice, then I tell somebody who just wants to write and doesn’t want to like plot and plan ahead of time. I tell them like, okay, now go write a scene, jumped somewhere else in the story in your head and write a scene that’s super emotionally charged.

And how did the character’s voice change? And now I have something coming out of you that we can work with for the rest of the novel, right? Like, so if you’re writing just off the cuff and you just want to, you know, start at the beginning of the drive through to the end, like my understanding is how Stephen King writes, like, just want to push through and see what happens.

Then just take some strategic moments of pause and ask yourself how’s the character’s voice changing and apply that to the rest of the book. Right. So like, cause once you recognize that the next time you get that character in a stressful situation, you know what to do, right. You know what to do with that character’s voice on the other end of the spectrum.

If you’re a plotter, then you can actually sit down and plan this out ahead of time. And you can go ahead and align your characters up and go ahead and attach some adjectives to their voice. And what I do is I just keep a chart on my board in front of me because I am an intense plotter. Let’s give a chart on my board in front of me.

And when I’m going to write a scene, before I write the scene, I figure out what characters are in the scene. And I just real quick glance at my adjectives that describe their voice. Right. Like just to start. And I go, okay, I got them in my head. Right. Like, or at work, we talk about putting the character in your mouth because you want to like, take the character a little mini character and like stick them in your mouth and have the character talk through you.

So like, we look at the adjectives, we’re like, okay, I’ve got the character in my mouth and I’m ready to go. Right? Like, and so if you’re a plotter, you can do that ahead of time and start laying it out. Um, the key is intentionality around how a voice sounds. And this is all kind of level one stuff, right?

Like we’re talking about kind of one character and building them together. The level two, like once you start thinking about one character and building them together, the level two of dialogue is to start thinking about how your characters interact with each other, to make sure that all of your characters have.

Uh, different voices. So if all of your characters are snarky and all of your characters are biting and all of your characters are a little, or are a little tense when it comes to anxiety, this is, this is a flat book. Right. Like, this is no fun because there’s no interaction. Well, we love our cast of characters that all sound different.

Right? Like we love Harry Potter because her meiny sounds like a nerd. And Ron sounds like a goof. Harry sounds like somebody who’s on the course of destiny. Right. And you put all three of them together and their voice does sound very different. And all of a sudden, we’ve got this dynamic cast and our readers are relating to different characters, right?

Like some people love her mining and they’re like, Oh, I got to get, I got to like, her mind is my favorite. And if I was going to be a character, I want to be the one that’s like studying all the spells and obsessing over that. Some people love Ron. Right. Like, they’re like, no, Ron’s got it down. Like easy view of the world.

Just, just, yeah. Loving friends and trying to get along in the world. He’s got the best lines, right? Like, and then some people obsess over here. Like, no, I totally relate to Harry and Harry Harry’s got that. Like. Drive and that like obsession to like push forward and all of that comes out in their voices, right?

Like three voices that sound very different. And that’s ideally what we want. So like the next level of dialogue is to start understanding like, okay, if this is my main character and this is how they sound, how do I get away from that motto mouth where everything sounds the same. And I’m going to start pushing past that model mouth to get my characters to sound different.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:20:38] Monmouth. That’s the term you use? The

Jeff Elkins: [00:20:40] bottle valve is the term I’ll use. Yeah. That’s the term of playing around with this, uh, is you have

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:20:45] a case of mono and it’s affecting your whole book for a long, long time

Jeff Elkins: [00:20:48] for a long, long

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:20:49] time. Yeah. And it’s, uh,

Jeff Elkins: [00:20:50] it’s shocking all the characters set on like you, and that’s like, you know, in my first book that I wrote, all of the characters sound like me, they all do.

Um, and I could read it

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:21:01] and I could be like, yup,

Jeff Elkins: [00:21:02] that’s all just me. So the key is to write outside of ourselves to write characters that don’t sound like class or like, um, you know, Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, big magic talks about creativity is of muse and is like something that comes from the outside.

To the writer and, um, in some ways the writers in partnership with them news. And I love that image because that’s how we want to be with our characters. Like we want to build these voices and then we want to be in partnership with the voices so that the characters are uniquely themselves. And we’re kind of speaking them into creation as we put them on the page.

Um, literally speaking of the men of creation by giving them words, right? Like, so it’s that it’s data, you know, Drive to create this dynamic cast that all sound different so that our reader can fund multiple points of engagement, because it all comes back to like, how are you getting your reader engaged?

Because like, this is all fun to talk about. Yay. Better dialogue. It doesn’t impact our actual like reader or sales. It doesn’t help our business. And it’s really just adding more on top of stuff. So the key is to like build that cast of characters so that we have multiple points of engagement for our reader so that our reader will buy into the story, read all the way to the end and get the next book.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:22:11] So speaking of that, and I know this is jumping around a little bit, but I know you have shared in previous interviews, I’ve heard you on about how dialogue can actually, so you increase your sales or yourself through it, right? Obviously the book cover and the blurb and all that stuff will draw them in, but then it’s your job as a writer to carry them.

Through that book.

Jeff Elkins: [00:22:36] So if you’re like putting your stepping KTP and you’re getting paid by the page that people read, then you need to keep that reader engaged to the end of the story all the way through and the way the reader stays engaged is by connecting them with your characters. Right? Like, of course, they’re going to be readers out there in the world that just fly through books, right?

Like they read a book week, they’re just flying through them and God wants us people. They’re amazing. But most readers aren’t that way. Right? Most readers are picking up a book, they’re reading a chapter and then they’re putting it down. Because they’re either they’re not connecting to it or they’re getting distracted by it, or, Oh my gosh, Netflix just ping my phone and told me the next thing on my phone is, is there for me to watch.

Um, so in this world, distractions, we really do have to kind of grab a reader by the throat, pull them into the book and hold them there. And that’s what our dialogue does. So back when I was first building this back in may and thinking about like, is this something that’s real? I did this experiment. And I went and got a whole ton of best-sellers.

Right. So I got Neil Gaiman’s American gods. I got Harry Potter, I got pride and prejudice. Um, I got a couple more and I just started going through and highlighting on the page. What was dialogue and what was prose, what was dialogue and what was descriptions? And what I found is that best-sellers typically have less than four paragraphs before somebody starts talking.

Right. Like, so if you have more than four paragraphs and somebody starts talking, you’re losing reader engagement. Right. Cause readers want to engage with the characters talking, and this is a cross, um, decades, right? Like I’m looking at pride and prejudice and Neil Gaiman, right? Like we’ve got two very different decades.

They are both over 70% dialogue. Wow. So like your plot, everything is being driven by your characters talking. And I don’t think I realized how important dialogue was to a story until I really started looking at it, numerically like that. Um, but the way I’ve come to think about it is that like, if your plot.

And like the twists and turns are the bones of your story. Then your dialogue is the muscle. That’s actually moving those bones through. And so if we want books to sell, then we have to focus on the dialogue and we have to make it good because that’s the reader’s point of contact. Um, and again, like the dream when I was a kid, uh, I got obsessed with John Grisham.

I read every John Grisham book that came out right. Like, and it started with the firm. And then from there on if a new one, okay. I came out, I got, and I still do right guys still, I am a John Grisham brand reader. Uh, and that’s what we want. We want people saying, like every book that Mark Leslie writes, I’m going to go get, because I love Mark Leslie’s writing.

And we know that what’s engaging. The reader in the writing is our dialogue is our characters. Is there emotional connection to the story? So I can’t tell you probably better dialogue and you’ll make $5 more a month. Right. Like, I can’t say that. I won’t give you that good

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:25:39] Canadian and American $5.

Jeff Elkins: [00:25:44] Yeah. Really about her score. Um,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:25:46] so.

Jeff Elkins: [00:25:47] Yeah. So I can’t tell you that, like, I can’t promise you, um, that like yes, better dialogue equals X number of more sales. But what I can tell you is that better dialogue equals better book, write a better book, equals more engaged readers and more engaged readers equals more sales, right?

Like, so it’s a step removed from sales. Like it’s not, um, this isn’t preaching like how to get better Amazon ads. Right. Like, because you can directly see that in your pocket book, but this is about us writing books that last and writing books that have staying power and writing books that people go back to over decades.


Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:26:23] I think about. Making your, your, your writing better? What the most common advice, right. Among the most common advice is show don’t. Tell. So how does dialogue, uh, how is dialogue

Jeff Elkins: [00:26:38] incredibly?

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:26:39] This is a leading question. How is dialogue and incredibly powerful tool

Jeff Elkins: [00:26:43] that was not like the preference to show and not tell?

Oh yeah, it is right. Like, so dialogue is showing when we think show, don’t tell. We immediately go to actions, right? Like we mean, Oh, this person is doing this thing. This person is doing that thing. One of the biggest things I have to do with writers when I work on their manuscripts with them is take out the summaries.

So a lot of times a writer will be like, You know, paragraph of world setting. Here’s, here’s how the coffee house looks paragraph of how the character feels. Here’s how the character internally feels. Then they say like, and the character went and had an interesting conversation and with a barista and then came back and thought more about how they felt.

It was like, no, no, like, I want to see that conversation. I want to dive into it, part of that conversation because yeah. To be honest, I skimmed the paragraph about how the room looks. I scammed the paragraph about the characters, internal feelings, and I didn’t start engaging and tell those quotation marks happen.

And I’m actually in the scene. So like take how the room feels and take the characters, internal shots and show me through what they’re saying in the dialogue.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:27:52] So an example then I would say, so you’re in a coffee shop. And instead of saying Mark, Leslie was rushed as he was. Standing in line at the coffee shop and was annoyed with the barista.

Instead of saying that when Mark, Leslie gets up to the well, Mark could be huffing and muttering things under his breath, while the idiot in front of them is taking his time. Then when the breast comes

Jeff Elkins: [00:28:11] up,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:28:11] he’s short he’s. Yeah. You know what I mean? Like, yeah. I need,

Jeff Elkins: [00:28:15] I need to talk coffee right now. Um, uh, just a little bit of room for cream and then the best part is like, you know, show why he’s annoyed with the barista.

Don’t just tell us, have the reason to say I’m sorry. You said. Talk coffee right now. Little bit of room for cream. I got to go right. Short clips sentences. Just a few words, right? Like focusing in on like the intentionality of okay. How we’re getting across that, like peppered machine gun, I’m in a hurry type to give that sense of rush and then have her go.

All right. So what you want is a tall coffee and you, you said you want it right now with just a little bit of room for cream. Do you want sugar with that as well? So giving her more words, right? Like stretching her.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:29:04] You can feel, I can feel him getting tense.

Jeff Elkins: [00:29:06] Yeah. Right. My God woman,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:29:08] just give me the coffee.

Jeff Elkins: [00:29:11] I’m here. Happy to help you, sir. I need you to calm down, please. Just. Take a breath. Would you like that with sugar or without sugar? And how much cream would you like? Right. Like just, and so you can start to feel the tension and just how they’re talking. Right. I haven’t seen any adjectives. I haven’t given you any, like, you know, he said gruffly, right?

Like just pure words within the quotation marks, using those to show, right. How your character is feeling and you’ve already, you said like you connect so much more with that change in the character’s dialogue. Then with the phrase, Mark spoke to a frustrating barista and was annoyed, right? Like, so show me that like, bring me as a reader into that.

Um, and just like put me into it deeply. So, you know, I was reading, uh, beloved last time I touched me Morrison, um, which is an amazing book with fantastic dialogue. And there’s a scene. Any opening of the book where Sathi the main character is going to show the scars on her back from when she was whipped as a slave to this man, that’s come to our house.

And what Tony Morrison could’ve done is just explained. I have scars, Sethi has scars on her back and she’s nervous that. To show them because it’s her, if she doesn’t want to think about it, but the scars are always with her. And then Tony Morris could have been like, and this represents slavery by like, but it doesn’t do that.

Instead. Sethi has a two page conversation about how it doctor came to her house and told her there’s a tree growing on her back. And the man’s like a tree. And she’s like, there’s a tree on my back with bark and berries and leaves and stems. And he’s like a full tree and she’s like full tree and he’s like, does it hurt?

She goes, no, I can’t feel anything anymore at all. And he’s like, let me see it. And they go back and forth about whether or not he can see it. And it builds this moment in the scene of pain and her deeply wanting to share, but also having to carry this thing. That she doesn’t want to talk about. And finally she removes her shirt and he can see the scars on her back.

And we get this, you know, very touching scene of these two characters connecting over their past history. But it’s, it’s done through her ex saying how she feels and showing how she feels through her words and not just Seth. He was sad. About the scars on her back, right? Like, so it’s that show don’t tell it’s that, let us feel it through your character, having to struggle to express what’s going on inside them.

Right. Cause this is the other beautiful thing about dialogue is that while we’re creatures that communicate through verbally through words, we’re also terrible at it. So getting the realism in that dialogue is a great way to show struggle and pain. And it’s a great way to show anger and frustration.

And it’s a great way to like, demonstrate that your character is calm and relaxed, right? Like how the words they’re using relates to all of that. And so just, um, so showing, instead of telling is being intentional with taking the stuff you want your reader to see and not just telling your reader, like this is what they see, but actually, yeah.

Letting your reader live through your character’s voice to feel it. Wow. Yeah, it was a long, white need explanation for show. Don’t tell.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:33:05] Right? Oh, that’s fantastic. So I know you have, um, you have a free book on your website and you also have services you offer, and I want to make sure that my listeners are aware, go to this website, download the.

Five mistakes, right? It’s five mistakes,

Jeff Elkins: [00:33:22] five mistakes you’re making with your dialogue

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:33:23] with you, you’re making with your dialogue, which is, I know we’ve kind of probably talked about mana mouth is probably one of them, but there’s probably more

Jeff Elkins: [00:33:30] for the other stone mouth there’s, um, static mouth. They’re all mouth.

So yeah, I was playing on mountain.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:33:37] Where can people go? And, and, and so you’ve got, um, the services you offer as well as this free download. And, and as I, as I’ve heard. You’re doing something pretty cool and exciting that you’re launching.

Jeff Elkins: [00:33:49] Thanks. Yeah. So I’ll just give a quick overview of everything you’ll find.

So if you go to dialogue doctor, um, you’ll find the free download sign up for the email newsletter. The email newsletter is fun. Um, like if you sign up for the email newsletter, you can get a second book. Uh, in the middle of it that like three days later, that’s like, okay, here’s three writing exercises you can do right now to start improving those, uh, the working on those

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:34:15] free news letter,

Jeff Elkins: [00:34:15] right?

Yeah. So free newsletter. Yeah. Sign up for the newsletter. What the newsletter is, is, uh, around twice a month. Um, I just share resources that I’m using to learn more about dialogue. So like last month I, uh, sent some articles from a Harvard professor named Allison woods Brooks who studies, how people talk and talks a lot about like the difference between follow on questions and boomerang questions and like how those questions impacted the listener.

So. Just giving tools to like use in your dialogue all the time. I do that about twice a month through the newsletter. So sign up for the newsletter and get the free book. And that’s the best way to kind of track what I’m doing. Uh, services I offer is, um, for 99 bucks, I’ll get it. I’ll you can send me up to 3000 words.

Uh, I’ll edit your words, uh, just for the dialogue and then you and I will get on a one hour zoom call and we’ll talk through them. And my intention with that meeting, isn’t it just to edit a piece, although you’ll get an, a. Edited piece for better dialogue. Uh, my intention with that call is really to talk about like, Hey, here’s some changes you can make and how you’re writing your dialogue right now to carry you through the rest of the book.

So if you and I can look at 3000 words together, uh, I think we can improve your dialogue so that the rest of, you know, if you’re writing a 500,000 words of space opera, I have the skills from those 3000 words to apply to the rest of the book, right? So that’s one service I offer. Um, I also offer to work through whole books with people, but right now I’m currently full.

Um, I’ve got the, all those. I only have so many slots of that and all of

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:35:41] that. Yeah. Cause that’s, that’s very intensive. You can’t take a lot of people on I

Jeff Elkins: [00:35:45] imagine. And that’s a weekly, like I, you know, to work a full book, we do about 15,000 words a week. Uh, and we do a zoom call where we talk through those 15,000 words and kind of do deep dives into like character emotional structure and like how those emotionals are playing out over the novel and how those characters are transitioning.

Um, so right now all that’s full, but if you keep looking at the site, Sometimes those come open. Um, what I am doing new that you mentioned, because those books slots are full. Um, I’ve had, I’ve had several people come to me and say, I really want to do a section with you, but I don’t have a piece right now to give you, so what I’m doing is I’m taking a book that I wrote.

Six years ago, the first novel I ever wrote it’s

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:36:27] so

Jeff Elkins: [00:36:28] taking the first novel I wrote and I’m going to rewrite, I’m going to do dialogue doctor on myself and I’m just going to edit the whole thing through and I’m inviting 12 people to come with me. So I. What you get, if you sign onto the group is, um, I’m going to edit the, the book in a Google doc.

So you’ll get access to all of my notes. Uh, before I start editing, we’re going to have a zoom call where we talk about like, Hey, here’s how I set up the book. Like, here’s how I’ve set up all my characters. Here’s how I’ve run through all my plots. Here’s the charts I use to do that. Here’s all the tools I use to set the book.

And then you can show, then you can see me editing the book in Google docs, uh, using those tools. The setup at the beginning of the book and how those tools impact my editing. Um, through that, we’ll talk about like emotional flow of the scene and you’ll kind of get like a deep insight into what I’m looking for.

When I edit, uh, at the end of every week, I make a video, so you’ll get 20 videos, uh, that are just privately for the day group. And I’ll talk through like, Hey, here’s the, here’s the edits I made this week. Here’s some neat things you can look for. Like here’s corrections I made here. Here’s why I’m doing this thing just to give.

Like a peek behind the scenes of how I look at dialogue. And then lastly, uh, at the end of every month, cause it’ll be, um, we’re going to do it from the end of October to the beginning of March. So at the beginning of every month, we’ll have a group zoom call where we just go through questions and, uh, the group can kind of ask me whatever they want.

And we’ll talk about, uh, how the editing is going and, you know, just kind of given an hour to an hour and a half chat as a team, uh, or on the work. So I got 12 spots. Uh, it actually went live today. So, um, probably a couple of days after,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:38:06] maybe in October 7th.

Jeff Elkins: [00:38:09] Yeah. It went live today. Um, so if that sounds like a journey you’re interested in taking with me, uh, head over to the dialogue doctor, you can scroll to the bottom of the first page and the menus down there and just click on the courses button.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:38:21] And it’s just confirm the website URL. Is it dialogue? Dr. Com.

Jeff Elkins: [00:38:26] Dialogue dr. Com

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:38:27] because you made it so complicated.

Jeff Elkins: [00:38:29] I mean, it’s so complicated, so hard, you know? Sure. Yeah. Um,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:38:33] so

Jeff Elkins: [00:38:34] this is embarrassing, but for years I thought dialogue was spelled D a L O G. But there’s actually a UAE on the end of that. It wasn’t a tell, like I wrote for like two years that like somebody was like, Hey Jeff,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:38:49] there’s a UV

Jeff Elkins: [00:38:50] to that word.

So it’s yeah,

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:38:51] you can write dialogue really well, but you can’t write dialogue.

Jeff Elkins: [00:38:56] I cannot write the word of, so DIA, L O G U E dr. Com.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:39:03] I just double checked. Yeah. Awesome. Yeah.

Jeff Elkins: [00:39:07] So, yeah, so, um, And then, you know, there’s Oh, the last, the thing is, um, so, you know, Mark coming, you’ve known me for awhile cause we, um, I actually reached out to you or like probably three years ago, early in my writing career, I was like, hi, I need help.

And you offered, uh, amazing advice. Uh, but I understand what it means to be a newer author, trying to figure out how to exist in this world and have no capital to put into, um, Uh, your career, which is tough, right? Like, cause we are starting small businesses and starting small businesses with zero capital and investment is so hard.

I get that. Um, because I’ve been there and felt that pain. So I have a podcast out now called dialogue. Dr. Com and. Or just the dialogue doctor podcast, sorry. Dialogue. Dr. Com is the website, the dialogue doctor podcast. And it’s, um, you can find it anywhere. Podcasts are Spotify, iTunes, all those good places.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:40:05] Turn to the podcast.

Jeff Elkins: [00:40:06] Then I’m doing is I’m going, you’re listening to me do session. Yeah. Every other episode is a section. Oh, with somebody that I’m working with. So, and, uh, you can find it on YouTube. I actually put the N the document that we’re working on up on the screen, and we just go through the edits together and we talk about how to edit it.

So it’s like doing one of the $99 sessions with me. Um, you can. You can just listen to it for free. And then on the off episodes, we do something fun, like, uh, my mentor and, um, current boss, Laura, who taught me how to write will come on. And she, and I will talk about stuff. I’ll have friends on and we’ll analyze movies and scripts together and kind of look at movies that we love that have great dialogue in them.

Uh, I just started a book club. And so, uh, on every 45 days, we’ll have a book club on the podcast where we talk about, uh, what the books that have amazing dialogue. So this month the book is beloved, which is why I was reading it last night. Um, and, uh, next, uh, starting in middle of November, we’re going to do Ernest Hemingway’s.

The sun also rises and look at dialogue and that it’s kind of like the classic, amazing dialogue books. So yeah, so all that to say, um, you know, if, if. This sounds like something you want to engage in, but you don’t have the cash to like start working on your own work or to join me in like a 20 week journey.

Go grab the podcast and listen. Yeah.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:41:30] Free. You could be listening to it. And then, and then just like learning by listening to you training and talking to other authors or working with Laura. That’s fantastic. Yeah. Another podcast I have to subscribe to now just as we’re all

Jeff Elkins: [00:41:44] running out of podcasts, listening time.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:41:47] That’s okay. I just, it means I have to go for longer walks. That’s all there is to it, or

Jeff Elkins: [00:41:50] I have the dishes

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:41:52] more. Um, so yeah. I want to thank you so much for taking the time we, I had such a wonderful time. Hang on. I had an amazing time engaging in verbal intercourse with you. Ooh. Look at that

Jeff Elkins: [00:42:06] verbal intercourse.

I feel like things are getting naughty. Yeah, no. Yeah. Thanks man. It was so great to come on. I really appreciate it.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:42:14] So dialogue dr. Com 

Jeff Elkins: [00:42:16] dot com. You can find everything there to find the menu. Just scroll to the bottom.

Mark Leslie Lefebvre: [00:42:20] Awesome. Great speaking with you, Jeff.

6 thoughts on “Episode 157 – A Conversation with Jeff Elkins The Dialogue Doctor”

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