A Rundown on Dialogue

A couple weeks ago, I posted a Q&A between myself and Evelyn Duffy, my editor. There was one question she asked that was cut from the final post:

In all your work that I’ve read so far, your characters do best when they have someone to talk to — you rely on and use dialogue extremely effectively. I find that many first-time authors struggle with dialogue. Do you have any tips for them?

I do have some tips. I cut the question, though, because as I answered it, my answer became quite lengthy and I decided to share it via blog post.

I love writing dialogue. I love it so much that sometimes I have to watch myself if a manuscript starts to look more like a straight-up script. But writing dialogue helps me understand what my characters think, do, and feel more than any narration I write on the first attempt.

I think one reason dialogue is difficult is because the nature of speaking is so different from the nature of writing. You can think about how you speak and how you react to what’s spoken, but that’s all one sided. A conversation is between two, and writing is a solitary craft.

As such, I recommend one tactic that you can do in the privacy of your own home and one I find to be very helpful: talk to yourself and pretend that you’re speaking to someone else. Ask yourself questions and answer them. Do it out loud, even if it’s just muttering to yourself. Do it at home or somewhere alone so you can really let loose.

This is helpful because talking to yourself is what you do when you write dialogue.  You’re creating a conversation between two (or more) people whose thoughts, feelings, motivations, and personalities are all in your head. By talking out loud to yourself, you’re practicing this in the more natural form of speaking instead of writing.

This also helps with what I think is the biggest hurdle to writing good dialogue: writing reactions as opposed to explanations. The clunkiest dialogue I’ve read (and written) is dialogue that narrates. I took an electronic media writing class in college, and one of our assignments was to write commercials. One of my professor’s cardinal rules was to never have the characters serve as the spokespeople. They should speak like normal people, and only the spokesperson — ie, the voiceover — should describe and sell the product.

This is applicable to fiction and dialogue. The narrator describes the story, but the characters live it. They live it by speaking within it like everyday people. And to speak like everyday people is to listen and react, not narrate and explain (well, not only explain — more on that later). No one likes talking to someone who only explains and never listens or responds to anyone but themselves. No one wants to read that someone either.

As such, I find that dialogue is always better when the next line is a direct build from the previous one, as opposed to just being the next step in advancing the story. I see lines of dialogue as stairs. Stairs build up, but rest on the edge of the previous one in order to climb. So do good lines of dialogue. This can come in the form of a question or clarifying statement, or some form of “Oh, I know — I do [blank] and this is how I do [blank] uniquely.” Sometimes I see an opportunity for jokes or tangents in response to a line, and add them even if they don’t advance the plot or reveal anything important. Not all dialogue has to. It does, however, need to sound natural (and it helps if it’s funny — even dramas or dark stories need good jokes).

calvin-conversation
Calvin may have been off-the-mark on conversations, but he does have some good advice on writing dialogue. Try not to have your characters interrupt each other too much though (unless they’re fighting — that’s more realistic).

Dialogue is at its least natural when it’s narrating — and this is where my final tip may be a little infuriating, because it will sound like I’m negating that observation. It’s the narrator’s job to explain things like setting, internal thoughts, and background. But sometimes, these things are better left to the characters to share via dialogue.

Now, I don’t think this should happen with prolonged explanations and backstory. It’s very, very easy for a character to start talking about their history and have them sound like a James Bond villain waxing on about their evil plans. If a character is going on and on, maybe consider giving that character their own section narrated from their point of view (whether first or third person). Such monologues can also be broken up by another character reacting — asking questions, saying what they think or what they would do, etc.

But no matter how it’s broken up, if a character’s background is being shared or revealed, it’s best to let them do it themselves. I find this applies whether or not a story is in first or third person. Narration should explain things about the protagonist (or, if switching focus/points of view, the person that is the focus in that section or chapter). But anyone else should speak for themselves.

I witnessed this particularly when writing Please Give. It’s told in first person, from Beth’s point of view. One of my most common revisions was to go back to a scene where Beth explained everything about everyone, and change it so that everyone else spoke for themselves instead. This made Beth seem more realistic, since she was no longer psychic and all-knowing about everyone else; and it also resulted in more realistic dialogue and narration.

This was especially true in Chapter 2, where Beth is at a staff meeting and listens to three nonprofit presidents — Mary Chau, Justin Moore, and Sally Wood — give presentations. In the first draft, Mary and Justin didn’t speak much on paper. Beth narrated their backgrounds and their organization’s backgrounds, leaving very little space for their own words. In turn, Beth’s narration both explained their history and her thoughts on them. This was clunky and didn’t read realistically at all. It read like an article or a blog post summarizing a presentation.

But narration shouldn’t be a summary, and dialogue helps it to not be one. This was the case with Sally, who spoke more even in the first couple drafts. She spoke for herself, and Beth’s narration was mostly in response to what she was saying — a reaction as opposed to an explanation. It flowed much better, and I realized that in order for the chapter as a whole to flow better, I needed to extend the same courtesy to Mary and Justin.

So, I went back and let them say what Beth previously described. They spoke about just enough history to sound like a presentation, as opposed to narration in a book (much like you want your make-up to look like you’re not wearing any, you want your dialogue to read like it wasn’t written). And rather than serve to explain, Beth’s narration broke up these lengthy speeches with her responses and thoughts — which in turn served to clarify and fill in the context for what they had to say. Because she had reactions as opposed to explanations, the scene read more realistically to me — and it did so because these explanations became a form of dialogue between Beth and the people speaking.

Dialogue is an effective tool, and one that many writers seem to fear the most. I think this comes from thinking too hard about what should be said or how what’s said fits into the narration as opposed to the narrative. At the end of the day, dialogue should fit into a conversation, not the narration. So let your characters loose — let them speak, let them react, and let them converse until it’s time for the narration to come back in. You can always go back and whittle the conservation down in a second or third (or eighth) draft.

And, try talking to yourself. Trust me, it works.


I’ve talked a lot about talking, but if you want to read a little more, I’ve shared similar advice on the blog before — namely, on talking to yourself in the form of interviewing yourself.

I also recommend checking out the actual conversations between me and Evelyn Duffy. It’s a conversation in two parts: Ask the Editor and Ask the Author.

Thanks for reading!

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