Posts Tagged problems writing dialogue
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?
I was editing a manuscript and came across a confrontation scene. It was well set up so that we understood the stakes, the context and why this encounter would sizzle. We were about to watch a protagonist face a mischief-maker and warn them off.
Except the dialogue was painfully obvious. Realistically, the characters should have been tiptoeing about, laying hints, oblique warnings and making concealed excuses. Instead, they came baldly out and said what was what, in a way that was unrealistic for their situation and personalities. Indeed, one of the characters said things that would have been professional suicide – when they were usually much smarter.
Although it was unconvincing, it certainly wasn’t bad work. Indeed it was a very useful way to mark out what must go in a scene where there’s a lot simmering under the characters’ words.
What I advised my writer to do was this. Make a copy of the plain-speaking on-the-nose version, and highlight the dialogue in a colour. This is what the characters really mean. Then rewrite so that they try to get this across without saying it. If one of them originally had the line ‘I know you started that malicious rumour’ or ‘I’m in love with your husband’, make them try to convey it in another way, by steering the conversation, making hints and watching the other person pick up the cue.
It’s not all speech
Non-verbal reactions are very useful in oblique dialogue. After all, a conversation with a heavily shaded meaning is a highly emotional situation. Characters might panic, develop a visceral sense of wrong or injustice. They might insist more strongly that they were right, or back pedal shamelessly. Even, a character might not know what they’re trying to say and surprise themselves with how much they reveal in an indirect way.
Their spoken lines may sound innocuous to an eavesdropper, but you can demonstrate their inner state with gestures, expressions, pauses, and nervous abuse of the cafe teaspoons.
Readers love to spot what’s between the lines and a scene that is undershot with subtext can be immensely satisfying. But until you know what your people mustn’t say, it’s hard to write it well. Indeed I see a lot of scenes that suffer from the opposite problem. I’ve seen many a scene drown in opaque, vague fluff because the writer wasn’t clear what was going on.
So if you’re having trouble with a nuanced, subtle dialogue, write the clumsy version. Splurge everything out. Describe the elephant in the room, its every wrinkle, eyelash and toenail. Then go back on another day, rub it out and leave just the hints and shadows.
Your clodhopping dialogue could be the mission statement to a fine scene.
There’s a lot more about dialogue and subtext in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2.
Do you have problems with writing oblique dialogue? Have you any tips to share? Let’s discuss!