This week author Crys Cain is joined by special guest Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor. They discuss how digging deeper into dialogue has changed how they enjoy books and movies.


Three Story Method: Writing Scenes by J. Thorn

The Dialogue Doctor


Crys: Welcome to The Author Life Podcast. I am here with a special guest, and I have an inkling of when this will air, which will be a few weeks after we record, but not a certainty, so I can’t even tell people when it is and what’s going on. But I would like to offer a warm welcome to my dear friend, Jeff Elkins, The Dialogue Doctor.

It would be really hard for you to imitate J Thorn.

Jeff: I’m terrible at imitations so it wouldn’t work at all.

Crys: The personalities are not very similar.

Jeff: But you were introducing the podcast and I just thought, oh, this is where J usually speaks. Yeah. Anyway.

Crys: Excellent. Excellent. I told you that we would have a very boring question to start us off so that we could go off the rails from there, but then as the evening got later and my brain shuts off, I came up with a better question to start us off, right off the rails, and it’s this. So first of all, if you’re not familiar with Jeff, The Dialogue Doctor, his specialty is editing with dialogue. He works his day job with dialogue, training AI scripts…

Jeff: Training simulations that train people in difficult conversations. That’s the nice tagline. So I replicate difficult conversations for a living.

Crys: And that has grown into writing difficult conversations engagingly for fun and profit.

Jeff: More fun than profit.

 I will decrease the fun and increase the profit at any moment.

Crys: No, don’t do that. I’ve been there. Keep the fun. The fun is worth more.

Jeff: Oh, I got kids in college. Bring on the profit.

Crys: Make those kids start working.

Jeff: I was teasing him a couple of weeks ago, there were four of them sitting at the table and they were all kind of staring at each other because they were tired. And I looked at him and I was like, y’all trying to figure out which one of you actually gets to go to college, aren’t you?

Crys: I always had this thought that was like, I need to like have one kid to be a doctor, one kid to be a masseuse, one kid to be a chiropractor. I was like, how many kids do I need to populate my self-care?

Jeff: Don’t forget that kid I’ve been watching the peacock show, or I guess it’s a paramount show, Yellowstone. And I definitely need a kid to own a ranch in Montana. I need, I need a kid to do that. So add that kid to the list of kids that do things. Yeah.

Crys: You could even have a cousin, depending. I don’t know how many nieces and nephews you have, but we can spread out the responsibility. Yeah.

Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. I just need a kid to run like a resort in the mountains so that when I feel like it, I can just go there.

Crys: Yeah, exactly. This is how I feel. but I ended up with one kid who is ADHD AF, who I doubt will go to college until he’s at least 25, so we’ll see how things work out.

Jeff: Yeah. As an ADD kid, I can say that it is a superpower, so he might do all of those things at once.

Crys: That would be impressive and probably burn a building down.

But all right. My question for you is: how has digging so deep into dialogue changed how you enjoy books and movies?

Jeff: That’s a good question. First it wrecked it, if I can say that. It’s like the first time you read Save the Cat and then you’re like, ah, crap, like I can’t watch any of these. First it wrecked it because I was real quick to pick out when it’s not great. And when I used to like shuffle that off as like, oh, I don’t really know what’s not clicking, but something about the show is not clicking and excuse it. Now, if the dialogue is bad, I can’t, I’m like, I know what it is now.

It’s ruined it for books for me. I really have to work hard to read if there are a lot of prose. So like I was reading P.D. James’ The Children of Men recently for a book club that I’m a part of that one of my old professors from college put together. And I love him and will do anything to hang out with him, so I will power through P.D. James. But it’s like, it’s a lot of prose. There are whole chapters that are just like journal entries in first person. And it’s a lot. And yeah, it makes it really hard to read now that I know that impact of prose.

I used to just be like, huh, I’m not really digging this book, and I put it down and then try to go back to it, put it down and go back to it. But now that I’ve really spent time trying to figure it out, it’s wrecked some books for me.

On the other side, I’ve really come to love recently well-constructed casts. So I’ve really come to love, like a cast that has complimenting and contrasting personalities. Like I just mentioned Yellowstone. I watch it for the characters. There are some amazing characters in that show and they really do weave together in very fascinating ways. So that’ll pull me into something, and it doesn’t really matter the genre.

That’s probably where it’s freed me a lot, is I used to read a lot of the legal thrillers, because I grew up reading John Grisham and I grew up reading Clancy. So that was just kinda my wheelhouse. So it used to be that like my go-to night read was like a Lee Child, whatever Robert Patterson, like latest thing off the shelf. Really getting into dialogue, long before the dialogue doctor, like this probably started about 10 years ago when I first started writing, nine years ago when I first started writing, really starting to appreciate the craft of writing and really focusing in on like, ‘how do I write these characters’ opened up any genre for me.

Like I can fall in love with a romance, with a sci-fi, like I read an Andy Weir book and I don’t like sci-fi at all, but the characters are so great. They were so compelling and their conversations are so great that like I’m in. So it’s just made me see books differently. Yeah, it reminds me of I played a ton of sports when I was younger, and it reminded me of like when you get to a certain level in a sport, you watch it differently. You like, you just see what’s happening differently.

 I played a fairly high level of football, not super high, but high enough to understand the game a little bit different level and watching football in some ways became way less fun because it was just more like watching chess than it was like watching something I was passionate about. And then not to mention the fact that I knew a bunch of people that got hurt. So that changed it too. But you also appreciate things differently.

So I think that’s how I would describe my reading now is that I just, I appreciate things differently. It makes it weird to recommend books to people though, because you recommend a book you’re like, oh my gosh, this is amazing. And they read it and they’re like, what are you talking about? I’m like, the way those characters interact, isn’t it great? And they’re like, there’s no plot. I’m like, it doesn’t matter.

Crys: Yeah. I’ve found that I definitely went through that super dissecting phase as well in my writing journey. And it made it where I just couldn’t enjoy anything. I couldn’t enjoy the bits that were good because all I could see were the bits are bad. But I now have the ability most of the time, depending on where my brain is, where I approach most media would that particular bit turned off.

Like I figured out how to subconsciously switch between my writer/editor brain and my reader brain. So when I go to something I’m like, is this fun? Cool, I’ll stick with it. If it’s not so terrible that it’s like making me angry, we’re good to go.

I have a very distinct memory of watching the second Frozen a year or two ago, whenever it came out.

Jeff: It was sometime before COVID, which is just a dark pit.

Crys: I think it was within COVID. It might’ve come out right before it, but I watched it within. But I was watching it with my roommate, Priscilla, and I was telling her what was going to happen in the movie. And she’s just like, how do you know all this? And you know how you have that experience with people who aren’t story nerds and you’re like, it’s absolutely clear. And it doesn’t ruin my enjoyment that I know what’s going to happen if they’re putting other unique, like images or like quips in there, if they keep the characters or the phrasing interesting. The story can play out just as I expected and I will be a happy camper.

Jeff: Yeah. Now I do get mad if it doesn’t pay off. I get angry if it doesn’t pay off. If you’re telling a story and I’m like, oh, okay, this is the direction that character is going to grow, I’m super happy to be surprised. But if you don’t follow through, I just get mad. Yeah.

Crys: I would agree with that.

Jeff: And just get mad about it. I can’t believe you didn’t follow through on that.

Crys: You can make it better, but you can’t not deliver.

Jeff: That’s right. You gotta pay off. And then I do find that, especially with character traits, the old rule about if I see a gun in the first act, somebody better die on the third. It’s so true of character things too. If you emphasize a character flaw in act one, we better be dealing with that in act two and three. I better see it. I better see that character start to mature. And so when they don’t, I start getting really mad.

Crys: I’m thinking of two TV shows that like nailed character in suspense in the first season. And then season two was meh. And then through season three just jumped the shark. The first being Heroes. One was amazing, like they really nailed those characters and then they let the character consistency go as they moved forward, as they were trying to figure out what was going on the world, because I don’t think they really knew.

Jeff: And that’s funny you say that because that came out before I was writing I remember watching season two and being like, ah, I think I’m done, but I couldn’t at the time have told you why. Yeah. Yeah.

Crys: Yeah. The other one is a Canadian sci-fi show and it’s six characters who all wake up with amnesia and they’re trying to figure out what’s going on. And the layers of secrets that show puts in place in the first season and they realized that they all have backup personalities stored. So they’re building these personalities from the point of amnesia, but then they realize they have backup personality stores, who are completely different people that they don’t know if they want to be. Season one is great. Season two, meh. And then again, season three completely jumped it.

But like what you said with the cast of characters and having a really engaging cast of characters, I really like that. That’s one of my frustrations with writing romance is that so much of the time is spent with just those two main characters, that you don’t get to explore all of the fun with other characters.

Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. And I’m a sucker for a big group of friends. I read the books, The Magicians, then watched the series that came out, and that’s like a prime example. I don’t care what they’re doing, I’ll watch these people just hang out. That’s not all of them, some of them really made me mad, but Elliot and Margot, all day. That was their names on the show, not in the book, but I would watch Elliot and Margot for like weeks at a time. The main character, Quentin, I could do without him, but Elliot and Margot, all day. Just compelling characters that have repertoire, yeah, I’m in for them.

Crys: So what would be one of your favorite stories right now that you’ve consumed in the last year-ish of this adventure?

Jeff: I gotta look at my book case. There are a couple I keep coming back too. A Man Called Ove, I keep coming back to, that was great. I read that a year ago and I find myself coming back to it. You and I have talked about The House on the Cerulean Sea, and that was great one. I keep coming back to that one. I’m trying to think if there are others. There are some that I’ve really hated. But yeah, I think those two are the ones that have really stuck out. I re-read Beloved a year ago and it’s the first time I’d read it as a writer. And that was a different experience reading that as a writer because I enjoyed the story in high school when I read it, but seeing it as a writer, you’re just like, damn.

Crys: It’s still one I have to read, but we have talked and I’m like, I know I need to be in the right emotional space for that book.

Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. Gird your loins before you go into that one cause that one’s coming at ya. I guess those are the four that like have really stuck with me. And I don’t read fast. I read like a book a month. I’m not a fast reader. Just don’t have a lot of time. I have picked up a lot of books and not gotten very far and put them down. I do that. I do not tolerate books that don’t stick with me.

Crys: Yeah. I’m very pro not finishing. We only have a limited amount of time in this world. Yeah.

Jeff: I don’t have time for that stuff. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction books this year that I really liked because of the castings. So like Michael Lewis does a great job at this. And he wrote one about the government and bureaucracy, I can’t remember the name of it off the top of my head, that I just loved. It’s like about all the hidden corners of government bureaucracy that you don’t know is happening. And he just takes you through person after person and talks to you about what their role is and who they are and how they got to where they’re and what drives them.

 And then he wrote, I went back and read his first one which is about Wall Street in the Eighties. And he walks you through everybody at Lehman and Sacks in the eighties, and all of the huge personalities and the big people. And it’s just a character study, like every chapter is a character study on a new person. I love that one. That was really interesting because that’s a world I don’t really understand. I don’t understand the world of finance and like moving other people’s money around. That’s like a sci-fi world to me, so it was interesting. It was really interesting to see an insider, because at the time he worked for them, so it was interesting to see an insider’s take on, Hey, here’s who these people are that wasn’t the Wolf of Wall Street. That wasn’t the like caricature of, we’re all doing Coke off of each other’s arms and screaming at the top of our lungs. It was really like, these are who these people are, and this is how they make, this is why they manage risk the way they do and how they run their lives. And it was just fascinating.

He talked about, this was way before the mortgage crisis, but he goes into like the home lenders that kind of set the seeds for the mortgage crisis. And he talks about how they’re all like super overweight because they like the first one was, and then he starts hiring other people that kind of match his like big Italian angry personality. And so you’ve got this group of men that are just these like big Italian men yelling and cussing at everybody all the time, creating the mortgage loan industry. Like it’s just fascinating. So, yeah, that was a good one. That was by Michael Lewis, was a really good one because of the characters in it.

Yeah, I think that’s it. I don’t think I can think of another one. I think that’s it. Those are the good ones that I’ve read.

Crys: It sounds wild, but the one about the bureaucracy, it sounds like it would also be very depressing when you think about the reality.

Jeff: Yeah. He wrote it during the Trump administration because there was a big thing in the primaries about shutting down the department of energy. He tells this story at the first of the book, like the Republican candidates were talking about we don’t need the department of energy. And Michael Lewis was like, I don’t even know what that department does. So he like walked in and he’s like, what do you guys do? And they’re like, oh, we’re nuclear physicist. And he’s like, really? And they’re like, yeah, everybody that works here is a nuclear physicist. And he’s like, I have to get into these places. I don’t know who these people are.

So he just starts exploring like all the weird corners of our federal bureaucracy that nobody looks at and the people that work there., it’s a really charming take on like, Hey, these are the people that like make the world happen that we don’t pay attention to, but they’re actually like really talented people that make this world go. So it’s interesting.

And I think, talking about like dialogue in nonfiction, if you’re writing a memoir or you’re writing non-fiction, Lewis is a great one to read. He wrote Money Ball. He wrote one about the founding of personality tests, which is another. I mean, that one, it goes back to post world war two Israel and the building of the Israeli army and how these two social scientists need to sort people that are being conscripted into the army into jobs, like who’s going to make a good paratrooper and who needs to be behind a desk. And so they invent personality tests.

Crys: I feel like if you write YA post-apocalyptic dystopia fiction you need to read that.

Jeff: It’s not a page turner. Like Lewis’s books aren’t page turners, they’re just amazing character studies. But if you’re writing memoir or nonfiction and you want to know how to incorporate dialogue into nonfiction, go read a Michael Lewis book. Because even though they’re nonfiction, they’re like 50% dialogue Because he Just, what he does is he takes pull quotes from people.

So he’ll be describing somebody and he’ll describe the circumstances they’re in, and then he’ll use a big pull quote from that person. And then the pull quote is always an example of how the person sounds and how they talk in the world. And it runs about 50/50, like 50% description, 50% pull quote. So he’s doing dialogue in an interesting way in they’re not necessarily a conversation. It’s not like people going back and forth, but sometimes he does. Sometimes he’ll capture a whole conversation, but other times it’s almost like that person’s dialogue is representative of what you would hear if you were standing in front of that person.

And so he catches the engagement of dialogue, which part of what we love about dialogue is that it speaks to us about who a person is. If we listened to somebody, we feel like we get to know them. So he’s pulling that element into his non-fiction. It’s really impressive. I haven’t read a lot of nonfiction people that can do that.

I was reading The Power Broker. I was reading that one and he does it too. He’s it’s all about the guy who built New York, it’s about Robert Moses. And he does that too, he’ll have moments where Moses just he’ll talk about like how Moses is going out to this place to have this conversation with these landowners whose land he’s about to steal. So he sets up the conversation and then he tells you what Moses said, and then he summarizes how they respond, but he makes sure to get the quote from Moses in there. So you can feel Moses’s direct dialogue. It’s a really smart way to, I think, make nonfiction come alive with dialogue. I find it engaging. I like reading it.

Crys: Yeah. Yeah. It’s far more engaging than just like this happened in 1963 and then that happened.

Jeff: Yeah. And I’ve read a lot of those too that are like just summarizing for me action. And even trying to make it intimate personal. But if you can give me what the people said, there’s something about that makes it come to life in a new way. Anyway, we can call this podcast “two fiction authors talk about nonfiction.”

Crys: Excellent.

My question for the listeners who’ve joined us for this wild rabbit trail is going to be: how has getting deeper into writing changed their relationship with consuming stories?

Jeff: It’s a good question. I think there’s also something about, you know, there’s that phrase, “great artists steal.” We haven’t really talked about that, but I think that’s also something that’s changed. in the way that I consume stories is I’m constantly looking to thieve things. Like constantly, if I read something I like, I’m like, Ooh, how can I do that? It’s this kind of like constant obsession with like, how can I steal that?

Crys: I steal character dynamics a lot.

Jeff: Oh all the time. Character pairings. Oh my gosh. If there’s a good character pairing. Yeah. Like I am still, I am working really hard to write a Rocket and Groot pairing from Guardians of the Galaxy because it’s an amazing character pairing. I tried it in my most recent novel, I don’t think I’ve pulled it off. So I gotta try it again. The like brash, ignored, put upon cynical, angry, foul mouth, rapid talking voice with the stoic, slow, calm, joyful friend is something that like, yeah, I really want to, I really want to push it out.

In my most recent novel, I have a character named Papa and a Character named sexy Tony. I tried to do it with them, but I didn’t really pull it off. Sexy Tony is just gross. Didn’t get it this time, maybe next time I’ll hit it. Yeah. But yeah, that’s also changed as a writer. I read to steal now. Yeah.

Crys: Thank you so much for taking this time.

Jeff: Yeah, thanks, Crys. This is great. I’ll play J any time.

Crys: Excellent. Jeff is a member of our Author Life Community, and also I want to recommend that you check out his Podcast, The Dialogue Doctor, on all your podcast apps.

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