Welcome back, my inklings, to Writamins! Your regular dose of condensed writing nutrition designed to get you pumped, get you thinking about your craft and get your project in gear!
This weekend is Independence Day here in America and many of my readers will likely be spending time with friends and relatives trying not to explode while the kids survive the annual pyrotechnic ritual we affectionately call “The 4th of July”. Now how, you might ask, is an inkling supposed to get work done on their magnum opus on a holiday weekend? Take some Writamin D, of course!
Writamin D: Dialogue:
Dialogue is crucial to building believable and compelling characters and understanding dialogue requires an understanding of real conversations. So if you’re going to be with friends or family over the weekend you should have as many conversations as possible! Talk to the kids, talk to the people your age, and if you’re fortunate enough to still have them in your life talk to your elders. Pay attention to how the conversations differ. How are they the same?
Remember, everything in life is research for the writer who is paying attention and noticing details!
Now for the active ingredients of Vitamin D.
8 Quick Tips For Great Dialogue
1. Dialogue has three primary purposes in your writing: plot movement, characterization and exposition (world building, dropping info about the past, showing relationships between certain characters and so on). Try to notice what a piece of dialogue is doing for your project. If it isn’t doing any of these three things then it may be an unnecessary line.
2. You should generally avoid dialogue that includes, “Everybody knows that ______”. If everybody knows something there is little natural reason for one of your characters to explain it to another.
3. Try to keep your dialogue focused. Real conversations meander but this makes for hazy plotting in books. If it’s moving the story forward and bringing the reader in then your doing well.
4. Make your characters speak like real people and allow conversations to flow. Your job is to make the reader forget that they are reading a story. They should feel like they are overhearing real people talking. Even so, don’t completely lose sight of the plot.
5. Swearing is unnecessary. No one notices when there is no swearing in a good story. People who are offended will put a book down immediately when they find bad language (I know I do), but no one will suddenly stop reading a book because there hasn’t been a swear yet.
Example: If you’re writing a character who would likely swear to be believable, take a look at this exert from Treasure Island:
“There,” John would add, “you can’t touch pitch and not be mucked, lad. Here’s this poor old innocent bird o’ mine swearing blue fire, and none the wiser, you may lay to that. She would swear the same, in a manner of speaking, before chaplain.”
It’s interesting to note that while the book is about pirates and a parrot with an admittedly filthy mouth there’s no actual swearing in it. If we must know that a character swears, phrases like “He swore under his breath,” or “She bellowed out the worst words she could think of,” can work perfectly while not losing you a single reader in the process.
6. Subtext is very important to making great dialogue. You can imply a lot about the relationship between two characters by what they won’t tell each other. For example, Jacob has just heard from Shannon and her ex-boyfriend asks him about her. If Jacob responds, “I haven’t heard from her in a while,” it adds intrigue and hints at something deeper going on here.
7. Forced dialogue happens when what I call a “Jump” occurs. If a character responds in conversation with information that required a sudden correct assumption to move the plot forward, it’s a Jump. Readers may be willing to accept one or two of these jumps in a conversation but too many and the whole section will feel contrived. Look for your characters’ responses to be logical and reasonable, often you can fix a bad dialogue jump easily just by adding a better set-up line that gives the information you were missing to justify the next statement.
Example: Your daredevil, Dustin, has discovered that his motorcycle won’t start. He says, “That’s impossible! It was working this morning. Ted must be trying to interfere with me.”
By itself, with no prior mention of Ted, we might find this to be a bit paranoid and unfair to Ted. But if we precede this by having Dustin’s mechanic tell him, “Hey, I ran into your brother Ted leaving out the back before you came in. He said your motorcycle was busted.” Now we can easily join Dustin in his suspicions since from his response we know that the bike was working earlier that day, and as an added bonus we got a little exposition that told us Dustin and Ted are brothers. We also learned that the mechanic isn’t suspicious of Ted because of how they weren’t alarmed that he was in the garage alone.
8. Take all of your dialogue and grab a friend. Remove all the attributions and treat it like a script. Read the dialogue to each other out loud as if you are in a play. You should hear the jumps in logic, the clunky responses, the unjustified changes in emotion. All these things happen in first drafts, so don’t worry. Just tweak it to sound more human. Your reader is going to subconsciously compare your written dialogue to normal conversations they’ve overheard and taken part in, so this is a great test to see how convincing your dialogue is in its current state.
Have a safe and fun Independence Day, my inklings, and until next time, stay creative!
Robert JV Christensen