I’ve had this interesting email: ‘A literary agent told me my dialogue sounded lifeless and unconvincing and that my characters talked only about plot information. What might be missing? What could I do to improve?’
What’s good dialogue?
First of all, although dialogue is one of the ways we can unfold the story, it’s more than an exposition vehicle. Note that word ‘lifeless’ in the agent’s assessment: good dialogue brings a quality of real experience. It lets the reader eavesdrop on people who are experiencing the story first hand. Even in a first-person narrative, we need dialogue from other characters or the world may seem less vivid.
(Of course, you might do this deliberately, perhaps to create a highly coloured or unreliable view of the world. But usually even a first-person narrative will let the other characters speak for themselves.)
However, characters obviously must talk about what’s happening – who is going where, what so-and-so had done to someone else, what everyone should try next. So how should writers handle it? What might my correspondent’s manuscript be missing?
Again, look at the word lifeless. And consider another word that goes with it: emotion.
It’s all about emotion
I would bet the missing ingredient was emotion. And emotion comes from the writer connecting with the characters. If I talk about something I’m worried about, it colours my vocabulary, my body language, the questions I ask. So the first thing I’d recommend is:
Be aware of how each character feels about the situation. Aim to convey that, not the information.
Second, consider the characters’ personalities. Expressive, confident types might tell everybody what they’re feeling. What goes on in their heads comes straight out of their mouths. More private people might find it hard to articulate their worries to another person.
Check your characters’ personalities How does this particular person show they’re worried? And – a bigger question – how thoroughly have you developed your story people?
Relationships – how do they feel about the person they are talking to? Irritated, calmed, excited, flirtatious, threatened, grudging, hesitant?
And don’t forget:
Individual agendas – what personal concerns do the characters have in the scene? Are they hiding anything? Are they competing with the other characters in any way, and do they want to show this? Are they fishing for information?
If you’re finding this tricky
Write dialogue and narrative on separate days
Relax. To write convincing dialogue you need to make a mental gear change. You stop being the storyteller who knows everything. You inject yourself into the souls of the people who are caught up in the events. Many writers find it’s easier to concentrate either on narrative or dialogue in a session. And sometimes, if a character is quite different from you, you might need to concentrate a session on just their lines.
Riff, then edit
It’s hard to get the great lines instantly. Allow yourself to write a riffing draft where the characters natter. Let them go off piste if they want – natural conversation does that. Tune into their voices, their fears, their hidden agendas. Once you’re warmed up, they’re sure to surprise you too, so have fun with it. Then come back on a different day and pan for gold. Look for sections that enshrine the important differences between the characters’ attitudes, and their similarities too. Look for remarks that seem to underline a theme. Cut all of this together to make a dialogue scene full of emotion – and plot significance.
There’s a lot more advice on dialogue in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel, as well as questionnaires to help you develop your fictional people.
Let’s discuss! What would you add? Have you had to add life to your characters’ dialogue? How did you do it?
#1 by D. Wallace Peach on June 21, 2015 - 5:07 pm
Great breakdown on the elements that make dialog come to life.
#2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 21, 2015 - 5:14 pm
Thanks – and thanks for the super-fast tweet!
#3 by Smiley like I mean it... on June 21, 2015 - 5:31 pm
Reblogged this on Smiley like I mean it….
#4 by Mary Foster on June 21, 2015 - 6:38 pm
So glad you brought this up, Roz.
I wrote a 720 page first draft that had nothing but boring (if informative) dialogue. I agonized over it again during the second draft. One night I woke up about 2:00 am. Knowing it was going to be a sleepless night I entertained myself by thinking about two of my characters, imagining what they were doing. I saw them reuniting after several months and (without my prompting) they made the best love I’ve ever . . . um . . . seen?
In the morning I thought, “Why did THAT come to me? I can’t write porn!” But the experience felt like a gift for some reason, so I decided to write it if just to “get it out of my system.” Afterward I could always delete it. When finished, however, I did what writers always want to do: I shared it.
My good friend and former English teacher who had always given mild encouragement came back with: “IT’S A MASTERPIECE!!!” Yes, all caps with three exclamation points. Not her usual style. I was deeply and painfully conflicted. I wrote a few more love scenes at her suggestion, but what was I to do?
When I returned to the body of the story, however, the dialogue seemed to come more easily. And it was much richer. Where the heck had THAT come from?
I had simply discovered how to live inside my characters, rather than keeping them at arms length and moving them around like puppets. Since then I let the emotional flow be my guide, always feeling what my characters feel, thinking what they think, and knowing exactly why. Only then do I write. It’s amazing.
Since then I’ve wanted to tell others so they don’t have to agonize the way I did.
The only “problem” later was not letting other scenes drift toward erotica. Once having opened that door, it became easy to tumble in. I read popular novels to see how authors managed to draw the line between stirring romance and erotic description.
Many thanks, Roz, for giving us a place to share.
#5 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 22, 2015 - 6:07 am
Hi Mary! An uncommon way to make a breakthrough and connect with your characters’ emotions – but it clearly worked! I doubt if anyone will forget your example here. Thanks for sharing it.
#6 by engie2313 on June 22, 2015 - 2:29 am
Reblogged this on Engieology.
#7 by Jonathan Moore on June 22, 2015 - 12:50 pm
Hi Roz, I agree with the narrative and dialogue elements benefiting from being worked on separately. I often think of the situation and then run through that in my head, imagining it like a film, to develop the dialogue. Unfortunately this often happens while I’m in the shower. Will have to invest in those underwater pen and pad things divers use.
Also, my dialogue used to be a bit rambling and digressive, because I was thinking of what real people aould actually say to each other. Since realising that dialogue is the main vehicle for demonstrating conflict between characters, I’ve found it is more punchy – characters have got something to say and they don’t let someone else’s agenda derail them.
#8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 23, 2015 - 7:28 am
Hi Jon! I swear that more writing must be done in the shower than on dry land LOL.
It’s interesting what you say about verisimilitude in dialogue. In real life we’re rambly, digressive, we leave longer pauses, we get words wrong. Even the best-educated of us might make a slip of tense or usage. In a novel, these natural kinks draw attention to themselves, and so if a well-educated character gets a tense wrong it will be interpreted as a signal from the author that they’re not what they seem. Hence we need to tidy it up so we don’t give pointlessly misleading signals. We have to make it sound real, but it’s a perfect version of real.
I like your point about conflict – that dialogue is one of the best ways to show the feelings simmering beneath the facts.
#9 by DRMarvello on June 22, 2015 - 4:46 pm
I agree that it’s easier to create rich, believable dialog when you understand your characters’ emotions and attitudes. We all bring a lifetime of experience and bias to every conversation, and our emotions of the moment influence the tone.
Also, dialog happens for a reason. We show a conversation between characters for a purpose (whatever it may be) that moves the story forward. The conversations we choose to show should reveal the characters’ passions and motivations, IMO.
I’m not usually into scene layering, although just this last week, I wrote a scene that was initially nothing but a back-and-forth conversation between two characters. I didn’t even include dialog tags because I didn’t need them. After I dumped the conversation into my keyboard, I went back and added tags (mostly in the form of actions), the POV character’s internal monologue and sensory observations, and the descriptive narration that introduced the conversation and wrapped up the scene. The “dialog first” approach did wonders for my productivity (in terms of wc/hr), so I may use it more often.
#10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 23, 2015 - 7:30 am
Hi Daniel! All good points – and I approach dialogue scenes like that too. As you say, the first step is just to get them talking. Find out what they will and won’t say. Then add the layers, on and on, refining and refining. Nice example.
#11 by Sherrie Miranda on June 23, 2015 - 4:15 am
Reblogged this on sherriemiranda1 and commented:
Dialogue can be hard, but it can also be fun. I was happy I figured out how to let my characters speak for themselves. That was really important to me.
#12 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 23, 2015 - 7:30 am
Thanks for the reblog, Sherrie!
#13 by shawn on June 29, 2015 - 1:38 am
Hi Roz, Great tips on dialogue. I’m a beginner when it comes to writing fiction so I really need all the help I can get 🙂
#14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 29, 2015 - 3:02 pm
Glad you got something useful here, Shawn.