Posted in Writing

Diagnosing Dialogue

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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…
  6. 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?”
    “Yes.”
    “What?”
    “Pizza”
    “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?

Posted in Writing

How You Say It

Not long ago I got into one of those discussions that can happen when bookish friends are at the bar and have been waiting too long for a table. “What was the first book you can remember reading where you immediately wanted more?”

Like any question that leads to a great debate, one that is chock-full of ambiguity. Does it mean what book made me want more of the author’s work?…More of that series?…Or does it really try to find out what book started to turn me into a reader?

So I thought back to the books I read as a kid. I discounted the books that we usually think of as children’s books, simply because they are a different reading experience than novels or short stories. And while I know it wasn’t the first book I read, I kept coming back to one title. I remember when I finished it, I just had to tell someone how great it was. My Papa was the other sci-fi lover in the family so that’s whose ear I bent (in my mind it was five minutes, but now that I have kids I know it was probably more like a day). And I remember being beside myself when I found out there were more books in the series.

The book was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 30 years (or so) later, the book still holds up to repeat reading, and stands as one of my favorites. And as I look back over a reading life that has spanned about 35 years, that book seems to be a remarkable standard-bearer for the type of books I love the most.

If I stand at my bookshelf, it’s easy to see the books I read the most. To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis, is heavily-creased, dog-eared, faded and generally looks like it’s gone a few rounds with a hyper puppy (a fitting analogy if you’ve read the book). Red Thunder, by John Varley, though not much more than a pulp sci-fi novel, is probably the most heavily highlighted and annotated book I own. Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair, has been forced on so many of my friends that I’m on my fourth copy. Lamb, by Christopher Moore… I could go on and on…

But it’s been only recently, that I realized not only how much these books are emblematic of the books I love to read the most, but they are also harbingers of the kind of writing I aspire to, even if I don’t always realize it.

What ties these books together is not just a genre–sure I love sci-fi, but there are hundreds of great sci-fi books that I’ve devoured and never picked up again. It’s also true that all of these are wildly funny (although with Red Thunder I would say that while the story is humorless, the characters bring a great wit to the events), and that’s a sure way to my heart. But if I had to pick a single thing that brings them all together it’s dialogue–I could pull back a bit and call it “Voice” just as easily, since several of these have a delightful first person narration that speaks directly to the reader.

Why? Every book I’ve ever read has dialogue. So what is it about the dialogue in these books that makes them so gripping to me?

It took me a long time to be able to answer that question. In most of these books the dialogue isn’t particularly poetic, or lovely. Nor are the characters’ words particularly insightful.

No, what makes these books such fine examples of gripping dialogue is that the author uses the dialogue not only as a means to tell the story, but also as a tool for character building. But perhaps most important of all, the characters nearly never say what you think they will.

Reading good dialogue is like watching an intricate fencing match. Each participant has their own agenda–maybe one is trying to get a straight answer, while the other is teasing with tiny revelations like a prose dance-of-the-seven-veils. In great dialogue, there is offense and defense, lunges and ripostes, jabs and parries. When dialogue is good, a section of dialogue will never wind up where you thought it would.

To me this is not only the hallmark of great writing, but also of a great storyteller. And will always get me coming back for more.