We’re all talkers, right? Most of us are, anyway. We know what a conversation should sound like, even if there’s no sound involved. (As the Gallaudet students recently proved, no actual speech is required to detect insincere conversation.) So why isn’t dialogue easy? Why do so many conversations lose their vitality when put down on paper, or get pulled out of context faster than a John Kerry song at the James Dobson Karaoke Festival? (I realize there isn’t such a thing... but there should be.) So, by reader request, some long-delayed suggestions on making dialogue work. (Yeah, I know it’s been a frighteningly long time since the last entry in this series... but I tried to make up for it a little with some bonus Leaving Laura excerpts.)
Said Bookisms and Other Pitfalls
Probably the biggest single dialogue issue writers encounter is the temptation to use "said bookisms," which is when a writer goes crazy trying to avoid using the word said. As it turns out, said is a perfectly acceptable word - clear, unambiguous, active. Unless you don’t vary your sentence forms at all (which is a whole different issue), no one is going to feel like you have too many saids. On the other hand, it’s very easy to make a manuscript nearly unreadable if insead of saying anything, your characters laugh, breathe, or chortle their words, or do other things that people can’t actually do while talking.
So instead of
"Make love to me again, George," laughed Condi.
"Make love to me again, George," said Condi with a laugh.
or even better
"Make love to me again, George." Condi laughed as she said the words, stroking his cheek gently.
If the conversation is flowing smoothly and naturally, and the characters’ voices are clear, readers don’t always need a lot of reminders of who’s speaking - it should be clear with just minimal reminders. Which leads to another potential pitfall: Don’t overcrowd your conversations, either with people or with chitchat. As a reader, it’s next to impossible to keep track of all the threads in a conversation with more than a few participants. (It’s not that easy in real life, either.) Try to focus on the two or three key players, and let them do most of the talking. Likewise, while it may be socially necessary to spend a large chunk of a conversation in status-building chitchat rather than actually conveying information, it makes for a deadly dull read; try to keep the information level in your characters’ conversations relatively high, with a few words of chitchat (and if necessary a segue) taking the place of long empty passages.
Instead of moving your characters’ conversations forward with a lot of stage directions, you can use body language to convey the same effect. It will give your dialogue a more natural and dynamic feel: No one wants to listen to two people standing around lecturing each other, and a lot of our understanding of conversation comes from watching that body language.
In other words, show rather than telling. Don’t tell me that someone’s nervous as she’s speaking; show her clasping and unclasping her hands unconsciously, or glancing at the door constantly, or whatever else would make you notice that nervousness in a real conversation.
So instead of
George pulled away nervously as Condi’s tongue touched his ear. "Only Laura does that to me," he said a bit drunkly.
George pulled away sharply as Condi’s tongue touched his ear. He overbalanced on the motion, almost slamming his head into the bedpost. "Only Laura does that to me," he said, slurring the words a little. "Only Laura does that to me." Tears started running down his flushed face.
Body language gives readers cues for how to interpret what the characters are saying - are they holding something back? spilling the depths of their pain? living their dreams? We should know by their body language. As a general principle, you shouldn’t have to tell the reader your characters’ moods; if I can’t tell whether they’re angry, sad, or a combination of the two then you haven’t paid enough attention to nuances of conversation to give me enough as a reader to work with.
Another thing body language can do is break up otherwise uncomfortably long bits of dialogue; if the characters are fidgeting, the readers are less likely to. If your character is uncomfortable then show that discomfort - it feels like a cheat if you leave it at "she said, uncomfortably" - which doesn’t really tell me much about how she reacts to uncomfortable situations. Does she internalize her doscomfort? Does it show on her face? Does she get flushed when she’s nervous? Does she play with things on the desk in front of her unconsciously? Does she doodle? Telling me any of those things gives me a much better picture of your character. In other words (editors repeat this a lot), show, don’t tell.
Talking Like Real People
Mark Twain, in his "Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses" - one of the funniest pieces of literary criticism ever written - pointed out that characters should talk like living people unless they aren't, and the reader should be able to easily distinguish between living and dead characters. No one will believe characters whose dialogue seems to convey information without any personality or inflection. Exaggerated dialogue is just as bad: Don’t make your character talk like a pirate unless your character is a pirate.
Avoid writing in heavy dialect if you can: It’s hard to read, easily confused, and even if your intentions are good, can come out as borderline racist. (For an example, see Richard Adams’s unfortunate novel Traveler, which is told from the point of view of Robert E. Lee’s horse in what a British author imagined was a heavy southern black dialect. After about a chapter the metaphor of horse-as-slave gets old, and soon turns more than a little bit creepy. On the other hand, Adams’s classic Watership Down - told from the point of view of a group of rabbits - makes excellent use of dialogue.)
Ideally, you should be able to put yourself in each character’s head and give that character a distinctive voice and verbal mannerisms. This can be very subtle. Think about the vocal cadences of the people you know; certain words get used more or less, there are distinctive styles of pausing, some friends have better timing than others, some use more slang, some never curse. Are you writing a more formal character, who seldom uses contractions? Are there quirks of word order, like a Californian’s "the Fifty-seven Highway" versus a northeasterner’s "Route Fifty-seven"? Pay attention to the conversational mannerisms of the people around you. There’s an essential voyeurism to being a writer: You find yourself listening to other people’s conversations a lot, not because you care what they’re saying, but because you want to be able to convincingly imitate the way a 14-year-old talks, or convey a Caribbean lilt (rather than just telling readers a character has one).
Making a conversation sound real is very different from transcribing an actual conversation. A lot of empty language that’s invisible in everyday speech gets old very fast in written dialogue. Feel free to use a couple of likes and you knows to convey mannerisms - but don’t overuse them, or use them anywhere near as often as they occur in real speech.
Another thing to avoid are jarringly sudden mood changes in conversation that leave the reader behind. Don’t change a character from calm to angry in the space of a few lines of dialogue without showing the mood changing along the way. Does a fist begin to clench and unclench unconsciously? Are there other body language indicators? Does the wording shift, in the way people’s language often does as their moods change? Don’t just tell the reader that someone’s suddenly angry; let the reader see the anger develop.
You may want to avoid using quotes for direct thoughts or internal dialogue. It becomes hard to tell what’s spoken out loud and what isn’t. As a writer and editor I prefer to put direct thoughts in italics, although if there’s a lot of direct thought - more than a couple of lines on a page here and there - you may want to leave direct thought set in roman type to avoid an unreadable amount of italic text.
He wondered what Laura would do if she found him here in Condi’s bed
is not direct thought, but
Laura’s going to kill me if she finds me here, he thought.
is, and so is the simpler
Shit. Laura’s going to kill me.
Most of the conversations you write will be shorter shorter than real-life conversations. They’ll convey information more quickly, with less chitchat and fewer interruptions than in reality. Readers want something that feels real, but they also want you to get to the point in a hurry, and not waste their time in plot digressions - but except in rare cases, human conversations don’t focus completely on the topic at hand, and much of what seems important to the people going through a crisis may prove pointless or off-topic in retrospect. You will need to trim much of the conversational fat - not all of it by any means, but do your readers a favor and get in the habit of serving a reasonably lean conversation.
Your characters words don’t need to show everything your trying to convey in a conversation. Sometimes, much of the meaning of a scene is conveyed not in the conversation itself, but in the interaction between two or more characters. We all know couples or families who never say anything that seems out of line - but the tension is palpable in every word spoken. You can convey that tension in the way characters hold themselves, their facial expressions, whether they seem desperate to be somewhere else. Is one party to a conversation zoning out or distracted? Is someone unusually quiet? These things all give key information beyond the actual words spoken - and you don’t need to tell me every word spoken to convey them.
Scenes from Next Week’s Episode...
My diaries will probably be intermittent for a while; I have three books coming out next year for Wildside Press, plus five more to edit for them (including two by Unitary Moonbat). Sometime soon, we want to do a sequel to Rove: The Roleplaying Game, but otherwise it will depend on when I’m trying to avoid a deadline, or if someone has a particularly intriguing suggestion. (This one’s been kicking around partly done since before the election and I’m just now getting it finished.)
The Rest of the "How Publishing Works" Series
I do still monitor and respond in the previous episodes, so feel free to post questions or comments in them if you’d like. And feel free to post requests for future topics in the comments as well.
Part 1 - Why bad things happen to good books.
Part 2 - Avoiding publishing scams.
Part 3 - Literary conventions (with an emphasis on SF Conventions).
Part 4 - Book packagers.
Part 5 - Submitting a manuscript.
Part 6 - Publishing lists.
Part 7 - Literary agents.
Part 8 - Copyediting.
Part 9 - Marketing and publicity.
Part 10 - Outlining.
Part 11 - Editing.
Part 12 - Ideas.
Part 13 - Contracts.
Part 14 - How Writers Get Paid.
Part 15 - Worldbuilding.