Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Writing Wednesday: The 3 Things You Need for Killer Dialogue

A while back when I asked y'all what you wanted to see in a craft post, I saw at least two requests for a post on dialogue. I initially didn't want to write about this topic because, to be honest, dialogue has always come naturally to me. It's the one bit of writing that I've never struggled with, and thus is the one bit of writing where I don't actually understand exactly what I'm doing because I've never had to dig in and fix a problem.

Ironically, that was the realization that bugged the hell out of me. I hate not knowing why things work. Whenever I have a problem with my writing, the first thing I do is stop and look at the parts--plot, characters, tension, etc.-- to see what's wrong. And then there's the issue where you can't use a tool to its fullest potential if you don't actually know what it's doing or how it works. True mastery only comes from inside out knowledge, you can't have that if your answer to "Why does this dialogue work?" or "Why did you write it this way?" is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

These are the thoughts that have been rattling around in my head over the last few months, and during that time, I've really tried to pay more attention to what I'm doing when I write dialogue. What are the forces that shape the words that pop out of my character's mouths? How do I keep conversations on track? Likewise, how do I know when a conversation has gone on too long? These are the questions I wanted to answer, and after a lot of poking, I think I've found what I was looking for.

Disclaimer. Up until this point, I've written all my dialog--10 published novels worth--just by going with what felt right to me, so obviously winging things is a perfectly valid strategy! If going with your instincts is working for you, too, that's great. Stick with that! This isn't meant to make you feel like you're doing something wrong. Everyone writes differently, and if you're having success with whatever you're doing (even if you don't quite know why) there's absolutely no need to change your method.

But if you're struggling with putting words in your character's mouths (or if you're just interested in the invisible forces that drive character interaction), then these are some things to think about that will hopefully make your dialogue writing a lot easier and more enjoyable. Either way, I hope you'll find the conversation interesting!


Writing Wednesday: The 3 Things You Need for Killer Dialogue

Dialogue in a novel happens any time a character talks to someone/thing. Characters talking to each other, characters talking to voices in their heads, characters typing text messages, characters talking to glowing lights in the sky, characters giving speeches to huge crowds--are all forms of dialogue. There are even times when characters talking to themselves can be dialogue, though unless the self talking takes the form of a conversation, I'm more inclined to call this a rumination, because reciprocity--talking to someone/thing and having it talk/react back--is the defining aspect of dialogue. 

That reaction, that reason to speak instead of just thinking, is why dialogue exists. It's also the key element to the tension and drama of any dialogue scene. When Character A expresses his/her/its opinion/beliefs, Character B is going to have an opinion/beliefs of their own, and the interaction of these (along with all the other outside factors created by the rest of the plot/setting) is the alchemy of good dialogue. Set those scenes up well, and you can turn a few seconds of dialogue into the pivotal interaction of your story (see "No, I am your father.")

So, obviously, good dialogue is powerful and important! How do we write it? How do you actually get characters to talk? (Or, more importantly, talk about what you want them to talk about.) Well, not surprisingly, you get characters to talk the same way you get them to do anything else--you harness their motivation and history.

Great Dialogue Tip #1 - Understand Your Characters

"Duh, Rachel," you might be saying. "I thought you were going to tell us something new?"

"Just because something seems obvious doesn't mean it's easy," I'd reply. "Just hear me out."
Every single time I've ever had trouble with dialogue (and it has happened!), it's been because I either didn't know my characters well enough, or I was trying to make them interact in ways they didn't care about/didn't want. This is all part of that slightly schizophrenic part of writing where you want your characters to thing for themselves, and dialogue is a huge part of that. 

Since novels have no visual element, how a character speaks is a huge part of both we as authors and our audience perceives them. I don't just mean things like dialect, either. We're talking about a character's actual voice, which goes way beyond just dialogue. Voice in a character is how they express themselves. It's how we as authors show readers how these fictional people think, their personality, and what they value. 

For example, Eli Monpress, the main character of my series of the same name, is a charming rogue with a dark past, big ambitions, one hell of an ego, and a deep longing to be loved and accepted. These are all aspects of his character that I've known from the beginning, but you can't just tell a reader "Eli Monpress is a charming rogue with a dark past, big ambitions, one hell of an ego, and a deep longing to be loved and accepted," You have to show them all these things, and you do that through a character's actions (what they do and how they react to problems) and voice in dialogue. How does this character interact with others?

If you're having problems with that last bit (the dialogue), you're probably also having problems with the first (knowing how a character reacts to problems). If this is the case, then the solution is to work on your character. Get in their head, figure out how they react to situations and people given their history, personality, and motivations. What does this character want? Why? What are they willing to do to get it? All of these things together create your character, and once your character is fully created, you should find that they have a voice and opinions of their own, which should come out naturally when other characters start talking to them.

But what if you do know all this stuff and you're still having trouble coming up with stuff for your characters? Maybe all the dialogue you write sounds stupid or isn't what you want or is lacking for whatever reason. To this, I would say you're probably being too hard on yourself. In the first draft, just let your characters talk. Don't worry about making them sound like the most amazingly witty/awesome people on the planet--that comes later. Unlike in real life conversations, novels let you edit your come backs to perfection and always make sure you're saying the right thing. 

So if your characters are talking, and you just don't like what they're saying, relax. Until it's time to let outsiders read your manuscript, you have plenty of time to fix things. Unless, of course, your characters are constantly saying things/acting in ways you hate or find boring, in which case it might be time to replace the character in question with a new version that you can stand and who says betting shit. 

Either way, the key to generating dialogue always and forever starts with the character doing the talking. If you don't know that person--what they want, their history, how they talk--then your dialogue is never going to be anything but stilted, because it's not actual dialogue. It's you as the author putting words in their mouths, not characters speaking for themselves, and that's no good. If you don't know your character well enough to hear their voice in your head, then writing their dialogue is always going to feel like pulling teeth. So if you're having problems with dialogue in general, go spend some time with your characters, and I think you'll find your problems straighten themselves out.

So that's trouble shooting for dialogue problems in general, but what about specific scenes? How do you go from characters just shooting the breeze to characters talking in a dramatic fashion about things you need to communicate to the reader? Well, fortunately, once you get your characters talking, getting them on task is simply a matter of knowing what you want them to say.

Great Dialogue Tip #2 - Always Have A Goal

If you've ever done any writing with talkative characters, you know keeping them on target can be a chore. Fictional conversations, just like real ones, are subject to tangents and going off track and even collapsing completely. But while these wobbles from the main topic aren't a problem for casual conversations IRL, they're a giant problem in novels where any drop in tension can mean lost readers. 

I can not stress that last bit enough. You always want your dialogue to feel natural and spontaneous, like this is what these people would say in real life. But a novel by definition is not reality. It's a carefully constructed experience meant to tell a story, not narrate the second to second reality of your people. For the same reason you don't dedicate a paragraph to describing your hero's morning poop (please God I hope you're not doing that), you don't want to let your character's idle conversation drift off course and away from relevant plot events. Yes, both of these thing would happen in real life, but even the most realistic novels are not actually real. We're not writing transcripts. We're writing books meant to entertain and captivate, and the events and dialogue we choose to show is a huge part of that.

So how do you balance letting your characters talk naturally vs. keeping them from having a five page conversation about which kind of powered armor is the best? (Cause believe me, if I'd let Devi control her conversations, that's what would have happened: a nine hour lecture about guns and powered armor battle tactics). Well, this is where the authorial control part of things comes into play, because while you want your characters to have their own voice, they're not real people. You are the one who is actually in control of the situation, and it's your job as the author to make sure the show stays on track. 

At the same time, though, you don't want to be too didactic in your control, because your characters still have to sound natural for your novel to be immersive. These secret here is striking a balance between letting your characters be themselves in their conversations and making sure you stay on topic, and I've found the best way to achieve that is to go into the dialogue with a goal.

One of my fundamental beliefs as a writer is that every word that goes into my novel should have a purpose. Letting your characters talk so the readers can get to know them is great, but you never want to have dialogue just for dialogue's sake. There's a reason novels are measured by wordcount. Every word you put in is a step you're asking your readers to take with you, and if you don't reward them for that--if you're constantly making do extra reading work for no reward--then you're being a bad author. Words that have no meaning are dead weight, and our readers deserve better than that. 

So when you write your dialogue, you always want to make sure you know what you're trying to say in this scene. You want to make sure this dialogue has a point, and you need to shape the conversation to keep your characters on that point. This isn't to say you have to be iron fisted about it. Obviously, you don't want to end up with something like "There is the castle of our great enemy. Let's attack it through that obvious weak point!" because that's just dumb. But at the same time, if you have two characters sneaking up to check out the enemy's castle, you don't want to let them go off on a tangent about what they ate last night. 

If your goal is to have them see that castle and plot how they're going to get inside, stick to that. Let them do it in their own fashion, of course, but keep that dialogue on task. Try to make everything they say relevant to that point in the novel both in terms of what's actually happening and in terms of where you want the reader's attention to focus (for example, if you're building up your tension to a big fight, now's probably not the time to have a character start talking about their tragic backstory unless that backstory is relevant to the scene.) 

In the end, this step is all about staying on target for the reader experience you're trying to create. Even if you don't stay perfectly on track, so long as you enter your dialogue with a goal in mind (revealing backstory, coming up with a plan, checking out a castle, confessing their feelings), your dialogue is naturally going to be more focused, more on topic, more relevant, and therefore more enjoyable and easier to follow for your reader, which is the entire point. 

So if you find yourself meandering through dialogue, step back and figure out where you're actual trying to go with this scene. It can be multiple places! One scene of dialogue can expand a character's backstory, reveal their plot, deepen a relationship, and explain a plot element all at the same time. That said, every extra job you pile on your dialogue makes the scene more complicated. So if you're having problems, try focusing on just one or two goals. Any dialogue that doesn't forward those goals gets cut. If you do that, your scene will be focused. It might be too focused, but you can always go back and fluff it out later. But if you're just trying to get this shit said without having characters ramble for five pages, your best bet is to pick a goal for that scene and focus focus focus. Keep your conversation on task, and you'll find dialogue gets much easier to write.

Great Dialogue Tip #3 - Don't Forget the Color

Up until this point, my dialogue tips have entirely about honing down--knowing what your characters' going to say and keeping them on target. But while these two elements will indeed get you perfectly functional, plot moving dialogue, the secret to really good, rich, character revealing, addictive interactions is in the details. How a character speaks is every bit as important as what she says, and how creatively we as authors reveal that--how we weave in details of character and setting and worlbuilding into what's actually being said--is the artistic part of good dialogue.

For example, let's say we have two characters in a Fantasy setting. Character A grew up in the royal court, while Character B grew up in the slums. Given that enormous difference in background, the interaction between these two characters will be entirely colored by their respective experiences. Even if Character A is trying their darnedest to be a good, understanding, unprejudiced person, their life of privilege colors their interaction with the world. They're going to make assumptions. Maybe they see Character B as a poor urchin who needs their help, or maybe they assume Character B is shady because of their shabby clothes and low class accent. Likewise, Character B is going to be making assumptions about Character A. Maybe they think Character A is a snobby noble because they're dressed nicely. Maybe they see Character A as a meddler, or an easy mark. 

Whatever the case may be, a huge part of the interaction between these two characters is established before a single word of dialogue is spoken simply because of the world they live in. But, of course, we authors can't explain all of this vast social inequity and prejudice right out the gate without resorting resorting to the dreaded info dump. But that's okay, because we can show all of this through color in our dialogue. Even if the dialogue itself is as simple as Character A asking Character B for directions, the way those words are spoken--the dialect, the relative politeness, veiled insults, assumptions, body language--can show you reader an enormous amount about your world. This is because dialogue is far more than just words. It's human interaction in all its complex nuances.

This is why I said at the beginning that dialogue is defined by reciprocity. When Character A talks, it's not just about the words coming out of their mouth. It's how they're said and how they're received, or misunderstood. It's all about how these two people with their own motivations and prejudices and place in the fictional world that creates their reality (ie, all that stuff that goes into knowing your character we talked about up in step one) spark against each other. If you've done your job and created really good characters with a solid foodhold in your well created world, this should be explosive. If your people are real people with their own thoughts and feelings, then they can not help but interact with each other, and part of making that interaction feel real is by filling it with all the little details and color that occur in actual human interactions. 

This is what it means to enrich your dialogue with color. If you want to have really great dialogue, don't just have your people talk. Have them feel and react in a way that's appropriate to their background, personality, and motivations within the scene, and then show all of that reaction in the details. If you have a street urchin, they're going to talk differently than someone who was raised in a court. They're going to react to threats differently. Their body language is going to be different. Their social cues, what they find rude, how they show affection, the kind of jokes they make--these are all going to be different from the character who was born to a higher social status. Ditto for a character who was raised as a warrior, or a character who was perhaps raised to be polite, but is actively rebelling against that by refusing to take anything seriously. The sky's the limit here! Whatever kind of character you think up is going to have their own views and assumptions and personality, and the more details of that you can fit into your dialogue through body language or misunderstandings or insulting assumptions or jokes that fall flat, the more colorful, realistic, and interesting that dialogue is going to be. 

I know that sounds like a pretty high bar, but remember: writing is not a performance art. You have as many edits as you need to get this dialogue write. Just speaking from my own experience, I'll often go through conversations four to five times (or more) just trying to get everything to hit the right pitch and go the right direction at the right pace. It's not a simple task. There's a lot going on, but if you focus on knowing your characters, staying on target, and filling your dialogue with colorful, interesting details that nudge your reader further into your world, I think you'll find that you can't help but write some pretty damn good dialogue. 

And that's that!

I hope you enjoyed this post on dialogue! If there's another writing topic you'd like me to cover, just leave it in the comments below. If you liked this post and want more like it, click here to see a list of all my Writing Wednesday posts. As the name suggest, I put up craft essays every Wednesday along with writing business posts and general fiction updates in between, so please subscribe to the blog via RSS or follow me on the social media of your choice (TwitterFacebookTumblrGoogle+) to never miss a post again! You can also find all my books, read sample chapters and reviews, or write me an email directly at

Until next time, thank you for reading! Again, if you liked the post, please let me know. Until next time, have a great week, and write something awesome!

Yours with ♥,


Kessie said...

Great tips! I'm like you, it's always been easy. And then I read the Dresden books, and boy, that dialogue snaps and pops! Same with various bestselling UA, like Raven Boys and Daughter of Smoke and Bone. In my research into how to write like that, I found James Scott Bell's advice: compress the dialogue. The fewer words, the punchier it is. It's helped my revisions immensely.

Arika Shantilly said...

Laughed so hard when you talked about Devi going on about armor for 5 pages because I could so see her doing that! Lol

Jimney said...

Very good post! I've been working on dialogue and I'm getting better - slowly. :)

Unknown said...

As a retired research engineer in an accelerated teaching for professionals transitioning into teaching, I was highly impressed with your post. Very impressive, informative, and enjoyable. Looking forward to reading your books.