Dialogue special part 1: how do we get characters talking?

Dave-Jamie-BBCThis weekend I guested on John Rakestraw’s Google writing hangout. He sent me a bunch of questions about dialogue, and I wrote so much in preparation that I got an epic post. Then when we got nattering on air with his co-conspirators, we delved off into other questions anyway. So I thought I’d run a dialogue special in the next few weeks. If you’d like to watch the hangout the link is at the end of this post.

(That pic is not Mr Rakestraw and friends, BTW. Tis Husband Dave at the BBC, pretending to read the news with his writing partner Jamie Thomson.)

Meanwhile, here’s today’s topic –

How do we get the characters talking?

Some manuscripts I see have no dialogue, or very little. There will be plenty of description, back story and even action, but the writer won’t have allowed the characters to step out of the narration and express themselves and interact with others. If there are conversations, they will mostly be reported instead of shown ‘live’ –

‘he told her that the best thing he’d ever done was to buy that log cabin in the woods – especially now they needed somewhere to hide until the stalker stopped watching the house’

Of course, sometimes there are good reasons to report a conversation. It’s by no means forbidden. But if all or most conversations are reported it can feel like the characters are being shepherded by the book and never acting independently – and so they don’t seem as real.

Dialogue makes characters real

Dialogue scenes let characters come to life. We see them acting, responding to other humans, experiencing events. For the reader, it’s like the difference between reading a report and being an eyewitness. They feel a personal, vivid connection with the moment.

And it’s a rich connection. Dialogue scenes allow you to demonstrate human complexity – what the people feel about each other, what their innate responses are according to their personality. (This can often create trouble for the writer, as I’ll discuss in a moment.)

What about first-person narration?

First-person narratives might need less dialogue because we already feel the character. Every piece of description, back story or other prose will be seen through the filter of that person’s psyche. So will their encounters with other people. But it will seem odd if there are no scenes where other characters are allowed to breathe, act, emote and be real.

Readers often look for dialogue before they decide to buy

Some readers flick through a book and are put off if there isn’t a good proportion of dialogue. Dialogue is easier to read than screeds of prose. But that’s not just because the paragraphs are more spaced – it’s because good dialogue is vivid.

So why do writers find it hard?

Some don’t of course. And if you’ve been reading this with a halo of confidence, could I ask if you find non-dialogue prose difficult?

This difference is usually where the problem lies.

Writing dialogue requires a specific frame of mind. When you’re in the flow of setup, action, back story or description, it’s tricky to switch to dialogue. In every other kind of narration, you control the camera, the voice of all the in-between stuff. For dialogue you have to let other minds in. That’s quite a gear-change. Especially if you have to inhabit several people, with different agendas and personalities.

2013-06-17 15.02.32Sometimes you realise, as you put yourself in their shoes, that they don’t see things the way you do. The lines you want to give them feel false. Or they run away with the story because of their responses. You have to let them find their own way, and maybe adapt what you wanted them to do. You realise a plot event is impossible because the characters won’t do it and you can’t work around it. This sense of frustration rarely happens with other types of scenes.

How to get your dialogue scenes running smoothly

Write dialogue scenes on different days from narration. Give your brain time to adjust.

Don’t put too many characters in the scene. In novels, it’s hard to manage more than three people who are all talking and responding. In fact, three’s a crowd because someone usually has to take a back seat. I’ve often seen writers try to emulate the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs where seven characters are sitting around a table. In the movie it works, but in prose it usually becomes an unmanageable mess.
Be prepared to rework a dialogue scene over and over. I’ve often had to spend several days on a dialogue scene, trying to get it truthful and authentic (not to mention interesting). Some characters can be particularly stubborn; Gene Winter in My Memories of a Future Life was exciting to use because he was unknowable and unpredictable – but this made him a devil to handle. He sounded wrong until I found something he’d agree to do. This struggle, of course, made me write better scenes.

This is the great challenge and reward of dialogue. Because you’re taking a step into the characters’ psyches, you find out what they’re really made of.

rake2Next post: dialogue is more than talking. Watch the full discussion with John Rakestraw here.

Thanks to Budd Margolis for the pics of Dave and  Jamie

nyn2 2014 smlThere are more tips on character creation, character voice and dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2

Do you have trouble writing dialogue scenes? How do you approach them?

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  1. #1 by mgm75 on October 14, 2013 - 9:09 am

    Dialogue is great because it is the only place where you can break the rules of the language and the reader will not care. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it too often that writers don’t change their voice in their dialogue so their characters don’t actually talk to each other – they make announcements or deliver speeches.

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 14, 2013 - 10:46 pm

      Mgm – two great points there. Yes, we don’t have to be formal in dialogue – indeed some writers find it hard to get the hang of this. And making characters sound distinct is important – but tricky. And they need to respond to each other – both literally and in subtext.

  2. #3 by Sue Price on October 14, 2013 - 9:54 am

    ‘So why do writers find it hard? – Some don’t of course. And if you’ve been reading this with a halo of confidence, could I ask if you find non-dialogue prose difficult?’

    This made me laugh, Roz! Spot-on, as ever. I once knew someone who was brilliant at dialogue, but actually gave up on stories and novels because she just couldn’t hack ‘non-dialogue prose.’ She asked me, ‘How do you write the stuff between the talking?’ – She turned to radio plays, at which she was excellent.

    I’d find it almost impossible to write a script. I LIKE that stuff between the talking. But I do enjoy writing dialogue. I’d agree with everything you say about it. I find it takes even more rewriting than the stuff between the talking, and progress with it is usually slow. You have to keep stopping and thinking yourself into the different characters: how would they think? How would they react to that? What words would they choose? – Looking forward to the next of these posts!

    • #4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on October 14, 2013 - 10:48 pm

      Hi Sue! What a brilliant story. And like you, I love the stuff between the talking. I like being the storyteller, director, art director, soundman, lighting engineeer – everything. But I suppose dialogue lovers feel they’re getting the fully rounded experience by hopping into all the different heads. Swings and roundabouts.

  3. #5 by writerchick on October 14, 2013 - 8:28 pm

    It’s funny, dialogue has never been a problem for me – my characters never shut up, actually. I have the opposite problem maybe – having too much dialogue.

  4. #7 by Daniel R. Marvello on October 16, 2013 - 2:09 pm

    When I first started writing fiction instead of non-fiction, the prospect of having to invent dialog worried me. However, I discovered that dialog is one of the most enjoyable aspects of fiction writing. My approach is to put myself into each character’s head at the start of the scene and think about what they were doing just before the scene began. If I know what they were doing/thinking going into the scene, I have an easier time producing a natural conversation.

    I agree that adding more “speaking” characters to a scene increases the difficulty of writing dialog. I haven’t had much problem with that though, because when I write a scene, the dialog is designed to fulfill the Grand Purpose of that scene. The conversation is not random; it occurs between two or maybe three characters who are revealing something important about the story to the reader. The more characters you add to the conversation, the more subtext enters the scene and the more difficult it is for the reader to follow the emotions of the individual conversationalists. That’s my theory, such as it is.

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