Let’s Talk Dialogue

Dialogue can be one of the key structural components to a story, and there’s a lot of vague recommendations and misinformation regarding it. This is one of my writing strengths, and I’ve given it a lot of thought while helping other other writers use it effectively.

There are a fair number of writers and writing instructors who insist dialogue has only two functions, moving the plot forward or developing the character.  I very strongly argue that this is an oversimplification, and misses several ways dialogue can serve a story.  In addition to these, well-written dialogue can ramp up or defuse tension, develop the world, contribute to description, and break up long narrative passages.

It’s hard to invest in characters and a conflict or argument they’re having, if you don’t see how it starts or how it is perpetuated through the characters’ actions and speech.  How a character speaks tells a lot about how they’re feeling about a situation or another character.  Rather than telling the reader that a character is awkward, nervous, or confident, you can show it with their word choices and the tags that support their speech.  It’s much more satisfying and visceral.

What your characters say to themselves and others tells the reader about the world, about the culture, and about what they are seeing.  The language you choose to use, can tell the reader that the atmosphere is casual or formal.

There is no holy grail formula for determining the perfect amount of dialogue for all stories.  There are stories that work perfectly fine with no dialogue, though this is much less likely to work in a novel.  There are excellent stories and chapters that are almost entirely dialogue.  The key is to make sure that the dialogue, or lack thereof, fits the story.  

If what you’ve used provides the story with additional depth, it’s what you need.  If it feels extraneous or leads the story or reader off on undesirable tangents, it needs to be cut or revised.

Like any writing tool, dialogue needs to fall into the correct place in the story.  Misplaced dialogue is jarring, pulling your reader out of the story.  The content of the dialogue needs to be reasonable, and follow the logic of your characters.  This is something many writers have trouble with. They focus so much on using dialogue to push the plot that they throw in conversations that would never happen where or when they do.  Or they force the dialogue along a path that doesn’t make sense.  While it’s true real conversations don’t always logically go from point A, to point B, to point C, there needs to be some connection, some reason if your character is going to switch from talking about the weather to screaming about past injustices.  If there’s no connection, it feels artificial, and it needs to go.  If the conversation needs to get to a certain point, make sure the writing beforehand, or the internal narration during, lead us there logically.

The language used in your dialogue can tell the reader a lot about the characters and the setting.  Word choices tell us if the characters are comfortable with each other, if they see eye-to-eye, or if they’re nervous.  They show us that the setting is formal or informal through the use of social cues and structure.  The words used by a character can tell the reader about their upbringing or past.  Do they say soda or pop?  Fireflies or lightning bugs.  Some of these are subtle, but all feed into the construction of your character.

Some instructors loathe contractions and insist they don’t belong in dialogue.  They are mistaken.  If the situation is formal, then it’s true your character may not use them.  If the character is not a native speaker of the language, they may not use contractions either. But a native speaker not using contractions when chatting at home or on the phone with their best friend feels stilted and fake.

I recommend caution when using vernacular, or phonetic representation of a dialect or accent.  Mark Twain was a master of this, and most of the rest of us just aren’t.  I’ve read a fantasy series where some characters speak with a Scottish brogue. Despite my familiarity with it, I have to speak the dialogue out loud in order to understand some of what they’re saying. This pulls me out of the story. Patois is perfectly understandable to my ear, but nearly impossible for me to read.  It’s not that this tool is unusable, it just needs to be used cautiously.  One of the reasons Twain was so good at it, was that he dialed the vernacular back, giving just enough to provide the world setting flavor without losing the reader.  

Test It
One of the best ways to determine for yourself if your dialogue is working, is to read it out loud. Does it sound like a real person? Does it sound like something the character would say, or does it sound like another character?  Read the entire story out loud. If the dialogue feels like it’s slowing the story or doesn’t flow, then it’s too long or misplaced.  If it feels natural and moves the story or its architecture (characters, world or plot), then it’s perfect.

Last Thoughts
Like character development, dialogue will add word count and page length. If additional length is a problem, you can truncate or summarize parts of longer conversations, particularly the parts that don’t significantly add to the story.

Character Flaw

Character development is one of the keys to keeping a reader engaged in a story. Believable characters intrigue the reader, move the story along, and provide a guide for the journey. Unbelievable characters can kill a story.

Like most artistic endeavors, there isn’t one right way to go about this, but there are some guidelines that can help you, especially if this is a weak aspect of your writing. A realistic character has to have some flaws, some room to grow, or they quickly become boring and stagnant. There is also the risk that the reader will have no connection to a godlike main character and will therefore not particularly care if she nearly dies while saving the world from destruction. Again. Worse still, are characters who accomplish everything they set out to do, easily and on the first try.

The challenge is to choose flaws that are not too overwhelming, detrimental, disgusting or silly, unless that’s the kind of story you’re telling. You can’t just throw in a bizarre behavior and say, “My character will only drink beer that is darker than her hair. She has a flaw and is therefore believable!” Flaws need to fit the personality of the character. This may seem obvious, but it’s sad how frequently you find characters with flaws that just don’t make sense. If you’re having trouble logically attaching flaws to your character, you may want to take a look at the character’s back story. A character’s history can influence the development of weaknesses and flaws.

If you’re having trouble coming up with realistic flaws, take a look at people you know, and think about the things they do that make you wonder if their head is properly bolted on. Focus on the things they do that are annoying, troublesome, or undesirable. Co-workers and family members are great for flaw farming (just don’t tell them I suggested it).

None of us are perfect, and our flaws are part of who we are. Having your characters defeat their flaws doesn’t need to be the goal of your story; it doesn’t even need to connect to the plot. Having your characters work toward their goals, despite their flaws, can bring them alive on the page. And that’s often what hooks your readers, maintains their interest, and brings them back to your next story.

Random Advice for Young Writers

In 2018, I got an ask over on Tumblr requesting advice for young writers, so here you go.

Read a lot, figure out what kind of stories you like, what styles you like, and what authors do a really good job at what you want to write.

Write a lot. Some of it will not be worth sharing, and that’s okay; you still learn from your failed stories, they still fulfill a need for experience.

Once you know what genre(s) you like to write, find a community of writers who are involved or interested in that genre.  This actually matters because there are lots of conventions or practices that don’t transfer from one genre to the other, and there’s ugly genre bias. My community includes going to science fiction and fantasy conventions, being in a writers group, and meeting writers online.  We talk shop.  We commiserate.  We celebrate each other’s successes.  And we bounce ideas off each other.

Look for feedback from people who can actually tell you what’s wrong with your work (structurally and grammatically). Really listen to them, unless they’re tactless jerks who take joy in verbally beating you up (dump those folks immediately); no matter what feedback you get, in the end it’s your story and some advice won’t be useful for what you’re trying to do.  Learn to give this same kind of feedback to others – it makes you a better self editor.

The traditional publishing world is harsh and ugly, so take heart in the fact that there are other options available now that weren’t available when I was starting out.  You can do your own thing in your own way. 

If something is too good to be true, step away from it.  It’s a scam.

It’s okay to ask other, more seasoned writers for help figuring out terms of service and contracts (most of us can’t afford lawyers for this, so we learn how to read these).

Embrace rejection.  It’s a part of being an artist, and it proves you’re doing what you can (writing and putting stuff out). You can’t always hit the right editor, with the right story, at the right time. 

Finding Motivation

I’m not going to lie.  This can be really hard at times, but there are also times when you’re going to be wickedly motivated to write stuff. 

Writing what you want to, is the best way to stay engaged, especially if you’re not being paid to do it.

Explore new places for inspiration.

Try new things in your writing so you can learn more.  This is fun and helps you grow.  The first time I wrote something with the goal of making the reader cry, and I succeeded, I was so happy, because that was hard for me to evoke at the time. But understand that you won’t always succeed on your first try. I spent a year dumping experimental stories on my writers groups as I tried to get a better understanding of plot. Some were great. Others were really not.

Writers groups with deadlines can be great motivators.  Or writing prompt challenges.  Or blogs with regular updates.

Getting Your Writing Out There

There are a lot of ways to do this, some better than others.  The key is that you want to make sure you keep your intellectual property rights.  This means you need to read those terms of service if you’re participating in an online forum.

Submit stories to magazines that print your genre.

Submit stories to reputable contests (many contests are not reputable).

Post stories on your blog.

If you’re middle or high school aged, the New Voices Young Writers contest is highly recommended by a friend of mine.  You may also find Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy useful if that’s a genre you enjoy.

Casting Call

Without characters you have no story.  They function like objects in English language.  Without them we simply have adjectives and adverbs, and the occasional gerund, verbing about in a field of pretty flowers, or a city, or on a spaceship, or another planet.  Character development can mean the difference between the reader not finishing a story and thoroughly enjoying it.  

The keystone of any character, protagonist, antagonist, primary, secondary, or cameo, is that they feel real.  If your character has the depth of a cardboard cutout, your readers aren’t going to invest in their success, struggle, failure, or demise.  Physical description, personality, speech characteristics, back story, flaws and mannerisms are all elements that help make your character come alive on the page; any of these can be your starting point.

To write good description, you’ll need some sort of picture (mental or otherwise) of the character.  If you don’t know what your character looks like, how will your reader?  Using real people as models can help when you’re in a bind.  If you have a vague idea, try doing an image search online with the characteristics you do know (brown eyed man, tall woman, traditional dreadlocks, etc) and see if you find some people who can help you flesh out your character’s physical appearance.  An image search for animals and mythical beasts can be helpful in the same way if your characters aren’t human.

Some writers feel compelled to complete complex worksheets and essays prior to starting a story.  If this works for you, it’s definitely an option, but it’s a lot of work, and it’s not necessary for every character.  You want a general feel for your characters’ personalities, but you don’t have to figure out their Meyers-Briggs placement or write lifeboat problem essays from their perspective. In the first draft, it’s a good idea to be somewhat flexible on personalities in case you need to modify things a bit for the story to work.  I find my characters’ personalities develop the more I write them.

Dialogue and Speech
How a character talks can tell the reader a great deal.  Does the character favor any specific words or phrases?  Are they using regional slang, oaths or incantations?  The types of words we choose can color the opinions and biases of the characters we create.  They also hint at the character’s past and give hints about the world. The dialogue of each character should feel like something they would say.  This doesn’t mean you have to make super specific speech patterns for each character, because that’s not how we talk in the real world.  However, you should pick words this character would use, and build their sentence structure to match their personality, education, and background.

Back Story
Believable characters generally do not spring fully-formed from the writer’s head to the paper like Athena from Zeus.  Good characters have experiences that made them who they are at the time of the story. I’m definitely not encouraging you to write a whole detailed novel version of their back story (this only becomes a never-ending backward trip through time), but you should know the basics, and perhaps have some key events in mind.  It’s noticeable when a writer knows more about the character than appears on the page; the story feels richer and the characters are much more dynamic and real. Back story includes everything in the character’s life that happened before they showed up in the story.  A character’s past will influence their fears, hopes, speech patterns, and biases.  Some pieces will be critical to the story, but others will just add flavor.  For most characters, you just need a rough idea of where they’ve come from and why they’re the way they are.

Characters who are too perfect are boring.  We can’t relate to them, and their conflicts and victories are dull when compared to characters who make mistakes and have room for growth.  I have a short essay that goes deeper into character flaws, so I won’t belabor it here.

These are the things that seem small, but add so much to making your characters feel real.  How does this character act when they are excited, sad, or angry?  While some characters may have some of the same reactions, they shouldn’t all respond identically all the time, unless they’re robots.  There are a number of ways your character could fidget to display embarrassment or boredom.  These are the little things you see in your friends and family while waiting at the doctor’s office or riding the bus.  Knee bouncing, hair twirling, nail biting, adjusting glasses, pushing sleeves up and down, lip biting, squinting, and slouching are all examples of things your characters can be doing.  Better yet if these show up in small two to five word additions to dialogue tags or narration.

Once your characters have reached a point where you’re happy with how they feel and look on the page, it’s a good idea to record the essential bits somewhere.  This is especially useful if you’re working on a lengthy series or if you may have to set the story aside for long periods of time.  This cheat sheet can get you back into your characters’ heads, preventing jarring out-of-character actions. While character development is essential to any story, with less verbose versions required for shorter stories, don’t get so carried away that you forget such things as plot, world development, description, dialogue, and voice.  It’s been known to happen, even to the best of us.