Monday, April 23, 2012

Want to write better dialogue?

I just happened upon this over at Jon Winokur's Advice to Writers:

    1. Dialogue should be brief.

    2. It should add to the reader’s present knowledge.

    3. It should eliminate the routine exchanges of ordinary conversation.

    4. It should convey a sense of spontaneity but eliminate the repetitiveness of real talk.

    5. It should keep the story moving forward.

    6. It should be revelatory of the speaker’s character, both directly and indirectly.

    7. It should show the relationships among people.


After reading this list, I figured it wouldn't hurt me to go down the checklist and make sure I've been staying on target in my own writing. I talked about this list with a few of my writer friends and the overall consensus is that numbers 3 & 4 seem to be the ones that trip up almost every inexperienced writer. I've had several agents tell me that my dialogue is very strong, fluid, and believable; just the words a writer wants to hear from an agent! I've had to work hard in other areas (description, for example), but I can write dialogue in my sleep. (I am not a strong plotter, but I can write a compelling conversation, which is a must for anyone submitting character-driven novels to the traditional publishing houses.)

If you're not sure what Bowen means by "routine exchanges of information" here's a hint:

    "Jack, it's been ages! How have you been?"

    "Just great. How about you?"

    "I can't complain. How are the wife and kids?"

    "Good. Yours?"

    "The same. How are you liking that new job?"

    "Lots of new challenges. I miss the old place, though."

    "And we miss you, believe me."

All right, enough. I'm afraid I'll injure my brain if I force myself to write any more of that drivel. But you get it, right? Jack and the other guy used to work together and they haven't seen each other in a while, so now they're catching up. Do you see what's wrong with this? It reads like it was transcribed verbatim from a real-life exchange. It won't work in a novel because because novels aren't about real-life conversations. The dialogue needs to move the story forward.

If you're writing dialogue today, you might want to bear in mind that suggestion is one of the most powerful tools a writer can wield. You don't have to write a full conversation at all. Just make your readers believe that you did. Here's an example:

He hadn't seen Jack in more than a year, not since he'd left his old accounting firm, Bean, Bean, and Bean. They exchanged a handshake and asked about each other's families, and then after a nervous glance around the coffee shop, Jack leaned forward and spoke in a low, urgent voice.

    "What have you heard about the investigation?"

    "All I can tell you, Jack, is that the SEC asked me a few questions. But we expected that, didn't we?"

    "You didn't tell them about--"

    "Of course I didn't tell them. I'm not a fool, Jack!" 

See the difference? Hurry past the inconsequential stuff and get straight to the juicy parts. That'll keep your readers reading. Realistic dialogue is one of the most powerful tools at a writer's disposal, but you must remember, nothing pulls the reader out of a story faster than bad dialogue. Here are a few simple rules (yes, more writing rules) to help you along:

Listen to How People Talk

Having a sense of natural speech patterns is essential to good dialogue. Start to pay attention to the expressions that people use in everyday conversation. 

Not Exactly Like Real Speech

Dialogue is not exactly like real speech, but it should read like real speech. Confusing? How do you accomplish that? Alfred Hitchcock said that a good story was "life, with the dull parts taken out." This very much applies to dialogue. Edit out the filler words and unessential dialogue -- that is, the dialogue that doesn't contribute to the plot in some way.

Don't Provide Too Much Info at Once

It shouldn't be ovbious to the reader that they're being fed important facts. Let the story unfold naturally. You don't have to tell the reader everything up front. Don't be afraid to trust your reader to remember details from earlier in the story.

Break Up Dialogue with Action

Remind your reader that your characters are physical human beings by grounding their dialogue in the physical world. What I mean by this is to be sure to add in physical details to help break up the words on the page. Long periods of dialogue are easier for the reader's eye when broken up by description. Help the reader visualize the characters, as well as hear them.

Don't Overdo Dialogue Tags

Veering too much beyond "he said/she said" only draws attention to the tags — and you want the reader's attention centered on your dialogue, not your ability to think of synonyms for "said." This is a huge downfall for many-a-writer. I know, we want the reader to understand the importance of the dialogue, or the intensity, or the vagueness, etc., and we feel that adding something like: "she said bashfully" will help. WRONG! As much as possible, please try to stay with the he said/she said tags. Find them boring? Good, so will your reader. Their eyes should brush over them quickly, helping to keep them in the story, which is exactly where you want them. The tags are simply there to keep the reader abreast of who is speaking, nothing more.

Stereotypes, Profanity, and Slang
Be aware of falling back on stereotypes, and use profanity and slang sparingly. All of these risk distracting or alienating your reader. Anything that takes the reader out of the fictional world you're working so hard to create is not your friend. 

Dialogue can be a lot of fun to write, though it can be tough to do well. It’s a good idea to go back and edit your dialogue carefully after writing the first draft.

What about you? What gets you stumped when writing dialogue? Please leave a comment and let me know if you found this information helpful. Until then,

My most heartfelt wishes for your success,

Dee Ann