I love writing dialogue, in part because I love reading dialogue. I believe that people are natural eavesdroppers. We like to listen in on other people’s conversations. That’s what reading dialogue is all about – it is one of the few times we can be privy to the private conversations of others without violating social mores.
Writing good dialogue is difficult. Attributing that dialogue skillfully and clearly can be incredibly challenging. So this week and next week I am going to focus my Writing Tip Wednesday posts on writing and attributing dialogue.
This week, let’s talk about the “spoken” words themselves. What are some of the tricks to writing good conversations among our characters?
Perhaps more than any other element of writing, constructing effective dialogue is an exercise in finding balance. What do I mean by that?
It should go without saying that our characters’ conversations need to have purpose. Every scene we write should be accomplishing multiple things at once – providing necessary background, deepening character development, furthering our narratives. Conversational scenes are no different. So our conversations need to be directed, they need to accomplish something – in other words there needs to be a point. But, you don’t want the conversations to be so directed that their outcome feels predetermined, nor do you want every encounter among characters to feel agenda-driven. We seek a balance in which the conversations accomplish all that we need them to in a way that feels completely believable.
We want our characters to get their points across without the conversation meandering too much, but we also want the dialogue to sound natural and easy, as opposed to stilted and formal. If you listen to humans conversing in a restaurant or bar, you can’t help but notice that we are remarkably inarticulate beings. We rarely speak in complete sentences, and even less frequently in sentences that are devoid of syntactical errors. We throw in a ton of “uh”s and “ummm”s and “like”s and “you know”s. Generally, we writers leave most of that stuff out of our written conversations, or else we throw in an instance or two, just to make things sound a bit more realistic, or to give a verbal tic to one character. My point is, we don’t necessarily want to make our characters sound like real people when they talk, but we also don’t want them to sound so perfect that they’re unrealistic or unrelatable. The balance here is, in effect, to make our characters talk the way we wish real people would.
So then the question becomes, how do we strike these balances?
Here are a few things I do. First, when I begin work on a scene in which, say, two characters are speaking, I already (I would hope) have some sense of the characters themselves – who they are, what they usually sound like when they speak, what they bring to their relationship with each other. For instance, if I’m writing a Thieftaker story and have Ethan interacting with Sephira, I already know that Ethan will be defensive and wary of her motives, but also willing to stand up for himself. I know that Sephira will be mocking and rude. She will use sexual innuendo to try to keep him off balance, and she will be driven always by greed and ambition. And they will have their conversation against a backdrop of extended enmity, rivalry, mistrust, but also familiarity and grudging respect. Knowing all that helps me find the right tone. Obviously, if Ethan was interacting with, say Diver, or Sam Adams, the equations would be quite different. The point is, knowing these things up front is incredibly important.
Second, I will have in mind throughout the conversation exactly what each character wants out of this particular encounter. I know that some of you are dedicated pantsers – you don’t like to plan any part of your books. And actually, when it comes to writing dialogue, I do as little outlining as possible, and I never plan ahead of time what actual words the characters will say. But this isn’t about planning or pantsing. This is about understanding our characters’ motives, and we should always be aware of that. Motive is particularly important in scenes with dialogue, because motive allows us to direct the conversation without making any of it sound predetermined. So knowing what every character privy to the conversation wants to get out of the exchange is crucial to the scene’s success.
Finally, as I write, I speak the dialogue. Or, more accurately, I carry on the conversation in my head, and then transcribe it into the manuscript, line by line. I tend to speak as I write anyway – if you were to watch me write, you’d realize that I am constantly sub-vocalizing everything. But I find the practice especially helpful when writing dialogue. If the words come naturally to me in the course of “conversing” on behalf of the characters, chances are it will read well on the page.
A couple of other things to keep in mind. Again, if you listen to people speaking in the course of everyday conversation, you’ll notice that we almost never call each other by name. As an experiment, try ending every other sentence in a real-life conversation with the name of the person you’re talking to. It sounds utterly ridiculous. So resist the urge to use names in your written dialogue. We all do it WAY more than we should. It is one of the first things I get rid of in revisions. I’m not saying don’t do it ever. But once in an entire scene is plenty.
Contractions: If you are writing in a world in which contractions do not exist, or if you have certain characters who never use contractions, do not use them. (See what I did there?) Otherwise, use ‘em. We all speak with contractions, and they help to make our words sound informal and natural. They’ll do the same for your characters.
Remember, you want your dialogue to sound as believable and unforced as possible, and at the same time, you want it to accomplish specific tangible things for your narrative. Yes, that’s a fine balance to strike, but with practice and a bit of forethought you can absolutely do it.
Next week, dialogue attribution!