I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to conclude that most writers, generally think of characters as dynamic beings. While I won’t itemize past posts you won’t have trouble finding opinions on this very blog about how certain characters are easily led, while others are uncooperative. And advice abounds about interviewing characters to challenge them in order to get at their inner core. Few authors seem to have complaints with their scenes or plots not cooperating, but it’s a common feeling that particular characters are just plain uncooperative.
I find this concept fascinating. On some level I know that it’s a sign that you have created a good character. Only well-formed characters are rounded enough to develop their own personality…their own energy…their own will.
Put them in the right situation and the scene will zip along, because you don’t have to worry about making them act the way you want them to. Instead, they take on a life of their own and all you have to do is chronicle what they’re doing. But put these characters in a situation they wouldn’t allow themselves in, or try to get them to act in a way they wouldn’t and they will fight with all their non-corporeal strength.
Being in this dilemma, also says something good about you–the writer. Think back–maybe a few months–maybe many years–and there was a time where your characters blithely did your bidding. They never fought back or threw up roadblocks. But now, the reader in you has stepped up and started checking your work before it’s even done. The reader inside you is saying, No, that’s not good enough. You can do better.
If you’ve a character of this quality, it’s likely that you’ve connected with her on some level. If you are lucky or skilled enough to create a character with this kind of spark—with a life of their own—you do whatever you can to keep them intact and honest. Scenes, plots, descriptions and whatnot are a whole lot easier to come by than a compelling character.
Dialogue is difficult to get just right and, like many others, I struggle with it mightily. Even so, I love writing good dialogue. But, if it’s so hard, why do I like it?
- I love how good dialogue shows us more about a character than the author could ever tell us.
- I love the energy that comes from tight crisp banter between characters.
- I love how good dialogue can control the pace of a story.
- I love the feeling I get when someone tells me that my dialogue sounds real.
But what is good dialogue? What is real dialogue? And how do we write it? Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.
- Record and listen to real conversations among friends. Now compare what you thought was said, to what was actually said. The lesson here is that real dialogue should not be your goal. Real dialogue is terrible–full of pauses, ums, stutters, repetition and bad grammar. What you need to strive for is dialogue that sounds like what you thought you said.
- Strip it down. This trick is one of my own inventions. If you have dialogue and it’s just not working, copy/paste it into a new document and spend a few minutes stripping away everything except what the your characters say–kind of like a stage play. When you read the dialogue with all the exposition and attributions stripped away, does it hold up? Does it hold your attention? If not, then it still needs work.
- Cut the fancy tags. Attributions are those verbs we add to dialogue. He said…She asked. Many times you don’t need them at all. When used, their purpose is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking. Don’t get cute, and don’t break out the thesaurus. If you find yourself striving for tags like he queried or she opined, you already know your dialogue is weak and you’re looking for a crutch.
- Don’t overuse names. People rarely use each other’s names in conversation. If you find yourself starting every other line with someone saying someone else’s name, then you’re characters don’t have strong, original voices. Maybe they both sound like you. Maybe they both sound like each other. Whatever it is, you’re having trouble distinguishing between them. Clear that up and you won’t need to keep repeating names.
- Stories are all about conflict, and dialogue should be no different. In many conversations the different players have competing motives. If Sam has a slightly embarrassing secret, Alex can’t just ask her what’s bothering her. She has to tease it out. And Sam has to resist. Try thinking of the conversation like a fencing match. It’s boring if there’s a single lunge and it’s all over. Lunge, parry, riposte, counterparry, lunge, dodge…
- Dialogue CANNOT be predictable. Take another look at that real conversation you transcribed and notice how much of a real conversation is predictable. Compare these rather mundane examples:
“Did you have lunch?”
“Was it good?”
“It was great”
“Did you have lunch?”
“Pizza. It was great”
By eliminating the expected responses, the dialogue gets tighter, crisper, and more compelling
What tips for writing dialogue do you have to share?
My creative writing goal for last year was to review and regroup. I spent the year going through old notes, unfinished stories, snipets, ideas, and a lot of junk. The idea was to judge what was worth keeping and what could be permanently forgotten. Then I took all that and organized it so that I can get to it again.
And I did a pretty good job. I’m left with one story that is unfinished that I still feel is worth finishing, and a good-sized database full of characters, scenes, dialogue, and thoughts that I can both find and use, when I need them.
But all that was prelude to a different goal. Now that all that is out of the way, this year I’m going to focus on redeveloping the habit of writing. Being creative is hard. Especially if you don’t use it everyday. And I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing.
There are many excuses I could give for this, and some legitimate reasons, too. But there’s no point in spelling them out, because even if you have real reasons you’re not writing, if you have the time and energy to list them, they’ve become excuses.
So what are my goals?
- I will write everyday. It might be a blog post, or a journal entry. Maybe personal correspondence. And just maybe a little bit on a story.
- I won’t schedule any exceptions to #1, but I will allow myself 1 failure/week without guilt.
- Since I’m rebuilding a habit, I’m going to start small. January 1-January 15, 5 minutes/day minimum…January 16-January 31, 10 minutes/day minimum…and so on. So by the Ides of March my minimum will be 30 minutes per day.
- I will learn not to stop when I’m on a roll.
And to give myself the threat of consequence…if I don’t contribute, SIGNIFICANTLY, to this blog in 2014, I’m deleting it.
You may notice that these goals do not include writing X stories, or anything to that effect. In fact I do have a project, that I’ll be working on this year–Rob Diaz and I, will be compiling and editing a collection of short stories. But right now we’re in the early stages and haven’t developed a deadline. Keep an eye out for news.