Monday, July 18, 2016

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: The Art of Writing Dialogue

I haven't posted anything on the writing craft for a while, so I thought I'd share something I wrote for Romance University back in 2012. I don't think I've ever published it here because it's a little long for a blog post. Although lengthy, I hope it's useful!

Think of your plot as a blank linen canvas stretched over a stiff wooden frame, and your dialogue as the oil paint you will use to create a masterpiece. Well written dialogue produces a vivid image that truly brings your story to life in living color!  It’s also one of the first things agents and editors look at when reviewing a manuscript.

If dialogue is choppy, wooden and stilted, a potential agent will assume that that sets the tone for your writing, and then reject your manuscript.  For the indie published, poor dialogue is what makes a potential reader either skip a purchase, or write a very bad review!

Dialogue has many functions, but two of the most important are to advance the story and intensify the conflict, all the while keeping it natural.  So here are a few ways to craft dialogue into a more compelling and natural sounding work of art.

Red: Tension, Conflict, Emotion
In Writing Fiction For Dummies, Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy say, “Dialogue is war! Every dialogue should be a controlled conflict between at least two characters with opposing agendas. The main purpose of dialogue is to advance the conflict of the story."  

·         Skip the pleasantries.  No one cares about the “Hi, how are yous?” Jump right into the heat of the moment.
·         Stay away from the info dump monologue.  Providing information without tension is boring.
·         Never use dialogue as filler.  Dialogue has to  heighten conflict, advance the story or display character development.  If it does none of this, hit delete.
·         Show emotional tension in dialogue through your characters actions and reactions. Perhaps a he falls silent, she interrupts, or the teen changes the subject.  

The Abstract: Loose and Free Flowing
Dialogue has to have a natural flow, but a common mistake among many new writers is to make it stiff and formal. Use these guidelines to make yours sound real:

·         Read dialogue out loud.  Does it pass the “ear test” and sound like actual conversation? Avoid fancy words.  In The Elements of Style Strunk and White say, “Do not be tempted by a twenty dollar word when there is a ten-center handy.”  "Seeing her confused him” is plain and simple. “Upon looking at her, he became discombobulated" is not.  It’s also too wordy. Streamline your dialogue and cut out unnecessary words.
·         Use contractions:  will not/ won’t, do not/ don’t, we will/we’ll, etc. They’re much less formal.
·         Think about real conversations with family and friends. It’s okay to be grammatically incorrect by ending a sentence with a preposition. “So what was that about?” sounds more realistic than “So about what was that?”  In stressful situations, you can use sentence fragments and one word answers.
·         Avoid the lecture.  A character expounding in detail about a subject will bore your reader. You’ve done your research, but it’s not necessary to show how much!

Flesh Tone: Make it Real
Stay away from unnatural dialogue.  Would your sister really say, “How’s your husband Ed and your step-son Frank, the child by Ed’s ex-wife, Beth?”  Using dialogue like that sounds artificial. Find a subtle way to convey those facts.  For example:
     “So where’s Ed?”
     “I left him at home working on my honey-do list.”
     “Is Frank helping him?”
     “No, he’s with his mom, this weekend.”
     “Beth, the wench?”


The Portrait: Provide a Distinct Voice for Each Character
Dialogue is an important part of characterization. Keep in mind the time period, age, gender, social status, education and geographic locale.

Imagine how different a Wall Street executive would sound compared to a Georgia factory worker.  White collar professionals are more likely to use correct grammar and speak in longer sentences, whereas blue collar workers might use rougher language and shorter sentences.

Take into account individual personalities: quiet, talkative, cruel, manipulative, compassionate, insecure, outgoing. Be mindful of the situations they’re in; dialogue has to be suitable for their action and reaction.


The Difference Between the Male Still Life and the Female Landscape   
According to Richard Drobnick from an article in YourTango:

“He believes communication should have a clear purpose. Behind every conversation is a problem that needs solving or a point that needs to be made.”

“She uses communication to discover how she is feeling and what it is she wants to say. She sees conversation as an act of sharing and an opportunity to increase intimacy with her partner.”

So keep in mind that men are more direct and brusque in tone. They use simpler vocabulary with fewer modifiers, and are likely to use one word responses and shorter sentences.  Instead of talking about people and feelings, they’d rather talk about things.  Also, dialogue is action for men.  Instead of discussing a way to save the heroine, the hero plans and executes it.

Women, however, love talking about people and relationships.  Their language is softer, and they’re more likely to talk around a subject.  “I’m not too happy about this,” she might say, while he says, “I’m mad as hell!”  Women express themselves in complete sentences, and want to share their feelings.

In closing, always keep your dialogue tension filled, loose, naturalistic and distinct for each individual character to create your masterpiece!

What do you like most about writing dialogue? Thanks for visiting and have a great week!

3 comments:

Norma Beishir said...

I've always been told I'm good at dialogue. But this is a problem a lot of new writers have, especially young writers. Characters' voices tend to sound alike--all the author's voice, rather than individual voices.

William Kendall said...

Very good advice, Maria!

Maria McKenzie said...

@Norma: That's so true. And a lot of new/young writers tend to let men and women sound alike too.

@William: Thanks so much, William!