Friday, April 29, 2016

Writing Words for Nerds #AtoZChallenge--D is for Dialogue

“’…and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice, `without pictures or conversation?'”

I wholeheartedly agree, Alice.

I love good dialogue.

I love reading it, and I love writing it.

It’s one of the best compliments I can receive when people tell me how great I am at capturing a character’s voice. Readers have said that about the way I write Josh in Ride of Your Life and Gilbert Garfinkle in Why My Love Life Sucks . They’ve even said that about Mordek, the villain in Toren the Teller's Tale .

I like writing dialogue—as well as internal monologue—because it’s the closest I can get to when I was a kid using little figurines and a bunch of little toys to create little worlds and make up little stories. Sometimes, I created the stories with my sister and my brothers, sometimes my cousins or my friends. It was fun because I could be anything I wanted to be and do anything I wanted to do. I could be a princess or a pirate or a dog, or even a princess pirate dog. I could sail the seas, and I could ride winged horses to adventures.

Who wouldn’t love that?

So I approach writing dialogue with the same sense of fun, the same sense of joy at playing pretend.

In a way, that makes it difficult for me to teach someone else how to write dialogue. How do you teach the idea that this is supposed to be fun? How do you get someone back to the same place that they were when they were little kids playing pretend? 

I honestly don’t have the answers to these questions.

What I can do is tell you where a lot of writers go wrong.

First, I see a lot of writers trying to use dialogue to do things, and that’s a huge mistake. A character should never say things a person like that in that situation wouldn’t say.

For example, lots of writers will write a piece of dialogue like, “It sure is raining, Jill. It is a shame that we arranged to get together with Amy and Paul at the picnic ground by the lake to talk about finding a new coach for the Beagles, the junior baseball team that our sons and Paul’s daughter belong to. I am worried we might get wet.”

What’s wrong with this? So many things.

First off, most people rarely address each other by name. Politicians and slimy salespeople do, but if your character isn’t one or the other, keep it at a minimum.

Second, people usually don’t talk about things that are obvious, like the fact that it’s raining would be to the characters having the conversation. Yes, sometimes we do. It’s small talk. But small talk is boring, and your characters shouldn’t be boring, so don’t do it.

Third, people talk in contractions, so it should be “it’s,” not “it is.”

Fourth, a lot of normal conversation is understood. If this character and Jill have already arranged what they’re going to do, with whom, and where, they aren’t going to be bringing it up in conversation. The actual conversation would probably be more like this: “Hi, Jill.” “Harry.” “Ready to go to the park?” “I don’t know, what with this rain. Maybe we should call them and change it.” “Nah, it’ll be fine.” See? There’s a lot that goes unsaid, because it’s redundant.

Fifth, people mostly talk in short pieces, like under twenty words at a time. This is a part of the give and take of a conversation. Sure, sometimes people have longer things to say, and your characters should—but to the most part only when they really have something that needs a lot of words to say. Or if your character likes to talk a lot. Or if your character is telling a story. But that’s pretty much it.

And last, people usually don’t say how they feel, not like this at least. Okay, maybe they do on Facebook, but that’s different. The buttons for how you’re feeling are right there. But in a real conversation, Harry would be expressing his concerns, rather than his feelings of concern. Not “I’m worried we might get wet,” but maybe “maybe getting together outdoors wasn’t such a good idea.”

So why do so many writers get this wrong?

Except for contractions, which some writers avoid because they’re intent on following their English teacher’s rules instead of what common sense tells them, writers make most of these mistakes while trying to make dialogue do double duty.

For example, “I need a way to let the reader know who’s talking, so I’ll have the character address the other character by name. That way the reader will know it’s Harry, not Jill. And I don’t want to show the scene where the characters arrange to meet, so instead I’ll have Harry tell the reader what happened. And if I’m already doing that, I’ll have Harry mention the weather.”

Yeah, no. Don’t do that.

What you want to do is to attempt to replicate how a real-life version of this character would naturally speak, although probably with less stuttering, ums, and likes than many of us tend to have in normal conversation.  

So how do you do that?

By paying close attention to how people really talk.

Of course, you can do this by paying attention to how the people around you talk. But you can also pay close attention to how people talk in YouTube videos or on the news or on reality TV shows. And you can learn from those who are already experts at writing dialogue. That doesn’t just mean in books. All mediums with dialogue—from plays to movies to TV shows—have people who are great at writing dialogue. I’m a fan of pretty much anything written by Joss Whedon or Steve Moffat. They are both geniuses at creating characters and writing dialogue.

Bad dialogue, by the way, isn't just a sin of fiction writing. Once you start to pay close attention, you’ll notice it in movies and TV shows. Some comic book writers are guilty of it, too.  Acknowledging that there’s a problem is the first step to fixing it.

Of course, there are more steps to take after that, but it’s a start.

And now it’s time to play pretend. 

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