Let Me Dialogue With You

This is the full text of a guest post I did on Rebecca Cahill’s blog back in September. If you get a chance, drop by and say, “Howdy” or whatever floats your goat. She’s got a great blog and it’s worth checking out.

Back in high school, I had a buddy who thought outside the box. I’ll call him CD to protect his identiy. CD used to write random thoughts, some of which were funny, others thoughtful, and try to sell them to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to his door. In his mind, if they were going to try to sell copies of The Watchtower to him, he was going to sell his own magazine to them.

He never did manage to sell any magazines, but he’s been a wealth of stories for me.

One day during a college break, we were sitting in the McDonald’s in the local Walmart and shooting the breeze. It would seem he had a lot of free time on his hands in college and decided on the ultimate way to pick up women at the bar. He was going to buy an Armenian Air Force uniform he’d found somewhere and try to convince people he’d flown Harriers during the Falklands War.

Yes, this was a long time ago. Thanks for asking.

Since he couldn’t do a British accent to save his own butt, he’d come up with some non-distinct, but vaguely foreign-sounding accent. He’d been observing the foreign students at UNM and had discovered a way to really sell his story. If someone were to ask him a question, he’d pause briefly, like he was translating the question from English to whatever language he was pretending to be fluent in, before answering.

“You really flew Harrier jump jets during the Falklands War?”

Pause. “Yes. Yes, I did.”

<Swoon>

I don’t know if he ever tried it in real life, but I’m guessing probably not. However, if you ever come across a guy in a bar wearing an Armenian Air Force uniform and claiming to have flown Harriers during the Falklands War, tell him I said hi and remind him he’s got a wife at home who may or may not know about his past life.

I’m not sure what Armenian Air Force uniforms look like, so this will have to do.

CD’s attention to detail in building a character for the sole purpose of picking up women at dive bars in Albuquerque, New Mexico shows the level of effort that should go into writing characters and, more importantly, the way characters interact with the world you’re creating. It’s the little things that sell characters. Little vocal quirks, like pausing before speaking, add a depth of realism that you just can’t get by slapping some words on a page.

Now, this little diatribe of mine is less about character creation and more about dialogue. Unfortunately, those two things are very intertwined with each other. Also unfortunately, the dialogue aspect of character creation is one of the easiest things to completely screw up. How many times have you come across an excellent narrative only to have it nosedive the first time a character talks?

“I would never do something like, for in doing that, I have forgone my something.”

Seriously, who talks like that?

Writers tend to be introverts. Not always, but there’s definitely a trend that way. You can’t spend the day hammering away at a typewriter, smoking, and swilling whisky like it’s fitness water if you’re extroverted. Don’t get me wrong, introversion can be a good thing. It’s hard to craft worlds and create things to put in those worlds when someone wants to, you know, talk and do stuff.

I’m talking to my characters, thank you very much.

And now, for no reason, Captain James T. Kirk wearing a green woman instead of an Armenian Air Force Uniform.

When we spend too much alone – whisky doesn’t count as an interactive friend – we start to forget what people are really like. Before you yell, “So what?” and start throwing things at the computer, remember this: regular people are the ones you’re trying to sell books to. And regular people like to see things that look real to them. As we’ve already established, one of the best ways to make a character look real is through the way they talk.

But dialogue is more than just character development, it serves other important purposes in a book. Everyone loves to say, “Show, don’t tell”, and dialogue is one of the best ways to do that. If you’ve got exposition to handle, try letting the characters talk about it. If there’s a complex plot substructure or twist, let the characters explain it rather than resorting to a few paragraphs explaining why something happened.

“You mean the minions of Hell aren’t really bad guys so much as misunderstood folks that have been the victims of a multi-millennium smear campaign propagated by a group that had a profit motive?”

“Exactly! These guys aren’t the real bad guys, those guys over there are!”

“My God! It was Old Man Jenkins leading them all along!”

When owls gasp

Okay, not exactly my best dialogue, but you get the point. Let the characters do the heavy lifting when explaining things. It makes for more interesting writing and, let’s face it, it’s a time-honored tradition. Just ask Aristotle.

Now we’ve got a couple good reasons to work with dialogue in a story: character development and showing rather than telling. The problem is, if your dialogue isn’t realistic, no one will read it and all your time spent putting your characters in Armenian Air Force uniforms and letting them explain the dynamics of your world will be for naught.

So, how do you write realistic dialogue? Well, fortunately, that’s the easy part. It does require a modicum of effort, but it’s effort well-spent. Go back to that idea that regular people read books and they want to read about people that seem real. Then go listen to some real people talking. Bada bing, bada boom, you’ve got the makings of good dialogue.

The real world, no matter how irksome it may be sometimes, is full of examples of how to write good dialogue. The first thing you have to do is toss aside all the rules of grammar that we’re all supposed to adhere to when we’re writing. Follow the rules in the text, but realize people don’t speak in grammatically correct sentences. People talk over each other, they use contractions and colloquialisms, conversations wander, points don’t always go where we think they’re supposed to go. Sometimes people forget their points entirely.

My buddy in college and I could spend all night talking. This was back before texting and when Geocities was still a thing, so talking was a good way to pass the time waiting for the damned modem to connect. Our conversations went all over the place and outsiders had trouble keeping up. One night, he, his girlfriend, and I were all out by the fountain chatting and looking at the stars. As per usual, the conversation drifted all over the place like a drunken frat boy and his poor girlfriend was feeling a bit lost.

“You guys shift topics constantly,” she said, “how do you do that?”

“Yep,” I replied, “We shift gears so fast…”

And then I lost my witty retort and ended with the lame-ass “we go really fast.”

“We shift gears so fast…we go really fast.”

I swear, I actually had something for that and lost it mid-sentence. Poof. Gone. Vanished. I want to say my buddy wrote that whole scene into a book of his own.

When your real life hits a book

People do that kind of thing all the time. Conversation is rarely linear, sometimes doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and almost never follows the grammatical rules that govern writing. If you want to make your dialogue more realistic, listen to people talking and use what you learn. Toss aside the monologuing, kick the perfect sentence structure to the curb, and revel in all the things you don’t get to do in the main part of the text.

You’re not supposed to use “ain’t” in good writing because it’s not a word? People use it all the time, so stuff it into dialogue. Do you love thinking in run-on sentences, but worry about getting tagged by grammar Nazis? Let a character babble away. Give them linguistic quirks like pausing before talking or saying “Okay” a lot at the end of sentences. Christoph Fischer did an excellent job with this in his book In Search Of A Revolution. In that book, Fischer had a character repeat words when he was stressed or otherwise out of his element. “No, no, no. That’s not what’s supposed to happen.” Things like that.

The trick here is that the dialogue must fit the character. It’s unlikely you’ll ever have an aristocrat use the word “ain’t”, but it ain’t outside the realm of possibilities if you develop the character that way. This is where you embrace the character with all his or her flaws and really dig into their head. Remember, just like real people, characters reveal their natures through not only what they do, but what they say, so the dialogue has to fit the psychology of the character. Since you created the character, you’re the ultimate arbiter of whether a line of dialogue fits a character’s development. As long as you as a writer don’t look at what your characters are saying and think it’s out of character, it’s unlikely anyone else will, either.

One gotcha here: a character’s linguistic quirks and dialogue have to remain intact throughout the whole of the book or story. I had a character in a recent book who I decided shouldn’t use contractions. The last few pages of the story explained why, so it became important that none of his dialogue had a contraction. It was nightmarish looping through the whole text and verifying Chan never shortened his words.

In the end, it might pay off or it might not. It’s possible, that was something most people will ignore or not even notice. That may be a perfect example of taking a linguistic quirk too far, but it did differentiate his dialogue from the rest of the characters who cursed and used contractions with reckless abandon, so it wasn’t a complete waste.

Let your characters live and breathe. Sure, dress them in Armenian Air Force uniforms and let them claim to have flown Harriers, but if you want to make them real, it’s their dialogue that will do that. Pay attention to how people really talk and you’ll be well on your way. Don’t be afraid to copy conversations from your best friend in high school or the quirks your boss gets when she’s mad that the project still isn’t done. Take all those things and weave them into the story. Observe the world and use what you find to enhance your writing. Your dialogue will be that much more realistic because it’s based on real conversations.

Let Me Dialogue With You

words

Human communication is mind-bendingly complicated stuff. How many times have your heard someone say, “It’s not what he said, but how he said it”? Or the age old “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice”?

Maybe the second one is less common.

Anyway, our communication goes well beyond the spoken words. You’ve got intonation, movement, history, touch, word choice, on and on and on. Anyone who tells you it’s what you say that’s most important is way off base. The verbal component of communication is actually just the tip of the iceberg.

Which leads us nicely to a potential problem: If communication is more than just the words, how do you handle the nonverbal aspects of communication in writing? For instance, take this line:

“I’ll always find you.”

The text alone is wide open to interpretation and it depends largely on the reader’s own past experiences (yes, a reader brings their own baggage into the book), their experience with the character, and the scene and story line you’ve set up. I pulled this line from from an image which shows us how important fonts are, but it’s also important to see how changes in the scene and the way the dialog is delivered can have a drastic impact on the way the line is perceived.

fonts-matter

Unless you’re hoping to write a novel with a ton of fonts – guaranteeing no one will ever read it – you’re going to have find a different way of eking that extra non-verbal aspect out of your dialog. The way to handle that is to rely on more than just the dialog. Set the scene, develop the characters, and take some time to explain the set up. Don’t get all pedantic with it, the reader doesn’t need to know every little bit that’s going through the speaker’s head at the moment, but they sometimes need to get a bit of context.

Now, the rules of writing dialog have been done to death. Truth be told, writing dialog isn’t hard: Listen to the way people talk and replicate that. Follow the rules of grammar, make it sound natural, all that jazz. But to make it all work and make the dialog compelling you have to – at least sometimes –  handle the nonverbal.cues.

Some of the nonverbal aspects of dialog – things like character development and history – are far too in-depth to handle in a blog post, but if you’re writing you’re probably already familiar with those things, so let’s focus on setting the scene. To illustrate how different word choices and scene-setting techniques work, we’ll be using the same quote for each scene. This is actually pretty similar to an exercise we used to in acting classes, but with writing. In that exercise, each actor is given a line and a feeling and told to deliver it. Two actors could be given two unrelated lines and told to interact using a feeling or something similar. This exercise basically the writing version of that.

Meloncholy:

He watched her from afar, as he always had and always would. She had her life and it was better without him in it. He’d saved her again and, just like always, she never even knew he was there. “I’ll always find you,” he whispered to her from the darkness.

Angry

“I think this will be the last time we meet,” he said. That smirk that made him a beau that won over many a young lady’s heart was plastered on his perfect face.

She tore at the cheap plastic belt that held her in place and glared as he casually walked off into the rain. It was a cheap trick, but it had worked, and he escaped her one more time. “I’ll always find you,” she snarled.

Happy

“How did you …,” she stammered.

His eyes sparkled gold and hazel in the mid-day sun. She drank him in, reveled in losing herself in him.. He held her close, stroked her hair, and said, “I’ll always find you.”

Scary

He pressed into the wall and wished he could magically pass through it. That nail he’d promised for months to pull out dug into his back. “How did you …,” he stammered.

Her eyes were as black as her soul. She didn’t care what happened when this was all over. Whatever it was, it would be worth it just to have been able to see the look on his face at this moment. She bared her teeth and her smile spoke of predation. “I’ll always find you,” she said.

Try it sometime. Take one or two phrases (technically it should be two since dialogue usually requires two people, but you get the idea), pick a feeling, and see if you can make it work.

None of this should imply that every line of dialogue needs this level of detail. There are certainly times when you want snappy repartee and, in truth, most of the times when we actually talk to each other there’s a lot of give and take. People talk over each other and interrupt each other all the time when they’re speaking. That’s not necessarily something you want to try to emulate in writing; it works about as well in print as it does in real life. Which is to say, not really at all.

Sometimes the dialogue needs to come fast and furious, but it’s also a good idea to back it off a bit sometimes and let the reader know what the voices in your head are thinking. Set the scene, let the characters be themselves, and let it rip.

Let’s mix the fast and furious with the deep POV and see what happens:

“Oh, Johnny… Where are you Johnny?” she asked.

Johnny stumbled backwards across the room, hands feeling behind him in a futile attempt to keep from tripping over the detritus of his misery. She was close. But there was no way she could be here, right? Not after the … incident.

“I just want you to meet my friend, Johnny,” she said.

“I already have friends,” Johnny said. “I don’t need any more.”

“But she so wants to meet you. She’s bright and shiny and I know you’ll both get along so well.”

“It was an accident.” Tears welled in his eyes remembering her broken body on the pavement. “I’m so sorry.”

“It wasn’t an accident, Johnny-boy. You loved your drink more than you loved me. But that’s okay, I found some new friends and they’re looking forward to meeting you.”

She came around the corner and he finally got his first look at her. Kelly, the woman he’d loved and lost to an accident that could have easily been prevented. She looked well, she looked normal. She looked like home. Whatever it was, it looked like her, but there was no way it could be her.

Johnny pressed into the wall and wished he could magically pass through it. That nail he’d promised for months to pull out dug into his back. “How did you …,” he stammered.

Her eyes were as black as her soul. She didn’t care what happened when this was all over. Whatever it was, it would be worth it just to have been able to see the look on his face at this moment. She bared her teeth and her smile spoke of predation. “I’ll always find you,” she said.

Sure, it’s a first draft, but hopefully it gives you some ideas.

So, what tricks do you use when you write dialogue?