AUTHOR'S NOTE: Originally written as a newsletter editorial for the "Unofficial Erotica Newsletter Group" in preparation for NaNoWriMo.
NaNoWriMo is getting closer and after this one, we've only got one weekly newsletter before everything kicks off on November 1st! With that in mind, I figured I'd better make these next two newsletters count, since we're running out of time to really get into the nitty-gritty of noveling. The aspect of writing I'd like to talk about today is writing realistic dialogue for your characters. Dialogue is, without a doubt, one of the most difficult aspects of writing to do well, and it's unfortunately one of the first things that readers pick up on if it's flawed or ineffectual.
Screenwriting is all about dialogue. Motion pictures are a medium where the audience only uses two senses - sight and sound. Someone sitting in a theater can't smell or taste or touch what's happening on the screen and, unlike fiction, they're not reading description on the screen to tell them what sensations they should be experiencing. If an audience member sitting in a movie theater can't see or hear a piece of information on screen, how can they know it exists? As a result, one of the most important elements of screenwriting is dialogue. What your characters say to one another and how they say it needs to convey volumes of information to your audience; I argue that you shouldn't treat it any differently in your prose. The minute you start to think of dialogue as unnecessary or filler, it's going to start to sound wrong on the page ... and it's a slippery slope from there.
A wise screenwriter once told me that every line of dialogue should do one of three things:
Advance the story
Develop or reveal character
Get a laugh
Ideally, every line of dialogue would accomplish two or even all three of things at the same time, but that may be aiming a little high. Simply put, the dialogue in your work should serve some purpose. If it doesn't serve one of the above purposes, ask yourself if that dialogue is really integral to the effectiveness of your work. If it's not, it should be removed, just like an unnecessary word in a sentence or a superfluous line of description in a paragraph.
Now, I know what you're thinking. Whoa there, SoCal ... we're already supposed to write 50,000 words just to make our NaNoWriMo goal, and you're telling us that we should be writing less? Well, I'll make a deal with you; I'll just tell you my advice for writing dialogue, and you can either follow it in the initial draft during NaNoWriMo, or the editing afterward. How about that? As long as the dialogue is cleaned up at some point, I won't tell anyone.
With all of that said, below I've enclosed some suggestions below, which should help you develop sparkling dialogue for your characters in whatever kind of story you're writing:
SPEECH ISN'T ALWAYS PROPER
The next time you're around people who are having a conversation, listen to what they're saying ... and more importantly, how they're saying it. You'll notice pretty quickly that most people speak in an abbreviated, staccato, almost shorthand way, with very few of us taking the time to fully or completely explain ourselves. Take this snippet of everyday conversation, for example:
GUY: Doing anything tonight?
GIRL: Not really.
GUY: You want to hang out?
GIRL: Maybe. What do you have in mind?
GUY: Dinner, maybe a movie.
GIRL: Sure. Sounds like fun.
Pretty generic conversation, right? Well, imagine if you took the time to write out that conversation using all the conventional grammatical rules that we've always been taught to follow when we write something? That conversation might start to look something like this:
GUY: Are you doing anything tonight?
GIRL: Not really.
GUY: Would you like to hang out?
GIRL: I might be interested. What do you have in mind?
GUY: I was thinking of going to dinner, and then maybe going to a movie.
GIRL: Sure. That sounds like fun.
Which one sounds more like the way people naturally speak around one another? The first one sounds more like a conversation you'd have with someone, right? Doesn't the second one seem a little stiff and formal for a conversation of this type? The lesson here is to write your dialogue like real people talk. If you need some practice, go anywhere where people are conversing ... eavesdrop on the next table at the restaurant while you're having dinner, or to a public place like a park or a mall and just listen to the way people speak when they interact with one another. Chances are, with enough research, your writing will start to reflect the way people naturally speak, which you can then infuse into your characters.
CONSIDER YOUR CHARACTERS AND NOT YOUR AUDIENCE
One of my biggest pet peeves is when dialogue is clearly for the benefit of the audience rather than the characters. Before you write an explanatory line of dialogue in a conversation between two characters, ask yourself what their relationship is, and how people in that situation would carry out the conversation. Take the following example:
GUY: I really hate my job at the power plant.
GIRL: Sorry to hear that, honey.
GUY: I'm just exhausted from working all these 60-hour weeks.
GIRL: I'm sure things will ease up pretty soon.
GUY: I hope so, because I've really been looking forward to taking that Australian dream vacation.
Now ask yourself, if this is a committed couple (as they probably are, referenced by the term of endearment she uses), they probably know each other reasonably well. So does he really need to say, "at the power plant" after, "I hate my job"? Wouldn't she know where he works? Similarly, wouldn't he simply say, "I'm just exhausted" since she would probably know how many hours he's been working or why he's so exhausted? And finally, does he need to mention the Australian dream vacation? Wouldn't she know the destination for their dream vacation? Let's look at that exchange again, as it would go between two characters who actually know one another:
GUY: I really hate my job.
GIRL: Sorry to hear that, honey.
GUY: I'm just exhausted.
GIRL: I'm sure things will ease up pretty soon.
GUY: I hope so, because I've really been looking forward to taking that vacation.
It's not a huge difference, but don't you get the impression that in this second example the characters maybe know one another a little better than in the first example? They've developed a rapport with one another, an emotional intimacy that allows them to shorthand their conversations based on what they already know about one another. If you have two characters speaking to one another, consider how well they know one another and make an appropriate decision about how they speak to one another ... don't just include any and all information you can think of, just to get it across to the audience. When you do something solely for the benefit of your audience, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
We'll discuss how to present this additional information in a moment.
SHOW DON'T TELL
As a general rule, it's better to show your audience something than to tell them something. Imagine watching a movie where everything was being told to you. What if, instead of the bomb going off, a character just told another character, "The bomb went off."? Or, what if you're watching an action movie and the protagonist simply says, "I'm an expert sniper." Is that going to be nearly as exciting as actually seeing the explosion or watching the sniper in action?
At some points, you have to tell your audience what's happening. It's unavoidable and it will happen in some situations. But the key here is not to rely on dialogue to explain everything all the time. It should be a last resort, when you have to convey a lot of information quickly or when there really is no better way to present that information to an audience. Just make sure that there's not a better way to present it first! More often than not, rather than one character telling another character a piece of information, you can find a more creative, more unique, more exciting way of showing the character coming across that information rather than standing idly by while another character tells it to them.
When combined with the earlier rules of using natural speaking patterns and considering the relationship of your characters, you can help narrow down the instances where a "telling" session will occur.
DON'T REPEAT YOURSELF
This ties into the action as well, but don't repeat the same information over and over again. Even if new characters are being introduced to one another, find a way to avoid recounting the same information twice ... your audience already read it once, you don't need to say it again. This kind of problem is most common in books with a lot of characters and intersecting plots, like a Robert Ludlum espionage thriller. The protagonist is running all over the world doing his thing and uncovering the conspiracies, and at certain points, he meets up with supporting characters who need to be debriefed. But the last thing you want is to spend a chapter writing about an exciting rooftop chase in Prague, and then have your protagonist meeting up with his contact in the next chapter, being asked what happened, and then starting in with, "Well first I jumped from the roof of the embassy to the rooftop of the adjacent hotel. They were chasing me as I jumped from there to..." Your audience just read about your character doing all those things, don't make them read it again in dialogue form.
The advantage to writing fiction is that you can summarize events in a single sentence. After the rooftop chase, when your protagonist is meeting up with his contact and is asked what happened, you can summarize with a simple sentence along the lines of "He recounted his race across the rooftops of Prague to his contact, whose eyes went wide with astonishment." Now, you're only forcing the reader to read one sentence (and by including the contact's reaction, you're presenting new information and keeping the story moving forward), rather than filling up several pages with dialogue that merely repeats what just happened earlier.
BE CAREFUL WITH ACCENTS
Generally speaking, try to avoid using modified spelling and grammar to establish an accent. With the exception of a few commonly accepted and easily understood words and phrases, you run the risk of hopelessly confusing the reader as they pull themselves out of the story to try and decipher what your characters are actually saying. Combined that with the fact that your reader may not understand accents the same way you're trying to present them and it can create a major headache. For example, imagine you have a German character who's trying to tell your character, "She will lose and we will win. It is inevitable."
What if you think a German accent is a "z" sound in place of an "s"? And a "v" for "w"?
Suddenly you get: "Ze vill lose and ve vill vin. It is inevitable."
What if you also think "i" sounds should be "e" and "a" sounds should be "u"?
Now you get: "Ze vill lose und ve vill vin. Eet ees eenevituble."
Okay, that might be a bit of an extreme example, but hopefully it gets the point across. When you intentionally change the way a word looks on the page, you're increasing the chance that your reader will have to stop and think about the mechanics of what they're reading. And if they're asking, "What the heck is he actually saying?", then they're no longer invested in your story.
My rule of thumb is to only use figures of speech which are readily understandable and are universally known. My list of words includes ain't, combined contractions (gonna, shoulda, woulda, coulda), kinda, wanna, -ing words shortened to in' (goin', havin', runnin', chasin', etc.), 'cause or 'cuz, etc. Even then, use sparingly. Remember that an accent is only one small part of creating a character's speech mannerisms. Before you start trying to change the way a word is technically spelled, see if there's a better way to get across your character's particular speaking idiosyncrasies.
THE READER'S INTERMEDIARY
Keeping in mind what was said earlier about writing for the benefit of your characters and not your audience, the question of how to get information to your readers becomes a concern. One of the best and most common methods for circumventing this problem is to make one of your characters uninformed about whatever world you've entered, so that when someone explains something to that character, they also explain it to the audience.
Regardless of what you think of the quality of his books, one of the best authors when it comes to this technique is Dan Brown. I haven't read The Lost Symbol yet, but I have read The DaVinci Code and Angels & Demons. What Brown does particularly well is make each of his characters an expert in a particular field ... but understandably ignorant of other specialties. Take Angels & Demons for example. Robert Langdon is an expert symbologist on the trail of the Illuminati, hoping to stop a plot against Vatican City. He's paired with Vittoria Vetra, a talented physicist who, understandably, has zero background or expertise with symbology or religious history. What does this mean for the narrative? It means that when the audience needs to know something important about either of their perspective fields, due to the pairing, there's always a character that needs to have it explained to them. Since the audience needs that information as well, that character becomes the reader's intermediary. In the book, Vittoria in her capacity as a physicist explains the importance, danger, and significance of antimatter... thus informing Langdon and the reader. Along the course of their adventure, Langdon explains the importance, danger, and significance of the symbols and clues they're following... thus informing Vittoria and the reader. At no point in the narrative are two characters discussing what they each already know; the information gets across because one of the characters, like the audience, needs to be clued in.
When you're writing a story in which the audience needs information explained to them, consider putting one of your characters in the same in-the-dark position as your reader... so that the explanation is both natural and needed.
SPREAD IT OUT
One of the best ways to get a considerable amount of information (like character backstory) across to your audience is to spread it out. Nobody likes to be lectured, and that's true of fiction writing too. When there's too much information in too close a proximity, the audience can become bored, or tune out entirely. That's why it's usually a good idea to spread out the information across several scenes, chapters, sequences, etc. After all, your characters are going to be spending a lot of time with one another during the 50,000 words of their story, so there's no need to have them recount every detail of their backgrounds for each other during the same conversation. If it's a romantic story, maybe they talk about their families over dinner. Later on, when they're walking on the beach, maybe he tells her about his greatest fear. When they're at the hotel room later that night, maybe she tells him about the crazy ex-boyfriend she has. In real life, what we learn about people and situations is most often the accumulation of knowledge acquired over an extended period of time. Your reader should learn about your characters and story the same way.
When writing your novel, consider that you're playing with a significantly greater amount of space than you are in a short story. Character motivations, personalities, backstories, etc. don't have to be explained or presented in a single scene or paragraph. You've got plenty of room to play around with ... spread out some of your character work, story details, etc. across the entire work; you'll be remembered for how the pieces all fit together more than you will for what was in a single chapter.
Hopefully this newsletter has given you a little more insight about how to craft realistic, interesting dialogue that's going to sizzle on the page and keep your audience interested in your story. Dialogue is a powerful tool and in a written work, readers often pay the most attention to what's said by and between your characters. If you do everything you can to write crisp, realistic dialogue, your readers will be that much more drawn into the story you've created.