Here it is, as promised! An article about writing Dialogue. I’ve been writing my ears off with all my characters chattering to one another lately, so it’s a good time for it. This is only an intro really…
1. WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?
Seriously, what is all this about a talking cheese and his yoghurt sidekick? We… we need to spring them from jail? Oh and why is that? Because we need to do that in order to advance the plot? Well why didn’t you just say so?
Well I’m saying so now: dialogue is there for three reasons (that I know of. I suspect there’s probably about twenty). One of them is, you guessed it:
a) ADVANCING THE PLOT.
You want to advance the plot with dialogue, because dialogue is like a wet sheet of vinyl rolled out down a hill on a summer’s day. Readers will jump on the dialogue and go wheeeee all the way down it, enjoying the ride and moving your story along. It helps to break up the description and action that make up the rest of your tale.
Now we know that we want to use dialogue to advance the plot, so what’s a good way to do it? Well once you know where the plot is going, and what ALL of your characters want, you can start their conversation. When they’ve argued/bargained/chatted/flirted their way to the next plot point, you simply go through and cull any dialogue that doesn’t advance the plot, unless it performs one of the two other reasons below.
So we’re all agreed on the use of dialogue to advance the plot, what are the other things you’d use dialogue for? How about…
b) DEVELOPING THE CHARACTERS
You can tell me that the maitre d is an arrogant toady, or you can show me…
“I’m sorry madam, but your names don’t appear to be here on the list.”
“There must be some mistake, my husband made the reservation only yester-”
“Excuse me,” he said, turning to the next in line. “Oh ambassador! You’re looking very well this evening, let me see if-”
The mustachioed ambassador put up a hand for silence, passed off his coat, and strode into the restaurant.
Not amazing writing, but the example should allow you to see straight away what an absolute smeghead the guy is, and interestingly you also learn a fair bit about the ambassador by what he doesn’t say: anything at all. This scene doesn’t necessarily have to advance the plot, as you might intend for them to get into the restaurant regardless one way or another (ninja dining FTW), but you’ve definitely developed the characters.
c) WORLD BUILDING
Info dumps, are bad, like, Star Wars prequels levels of bad. Weddings in the rain levels of bad. Star Wars themed weddings in the rain with a Jango Fett groom and a Slave-Leia bride levels of bad. Okay, that does sound kind of amazing, but you get my gist.
And if info dumps are bad, we know that there’s a thing called incluing as an alternative, right? Incluing is where you take that list of information and DON’T DUMP IT ON THE READER! That’s right… slowly put it back down… good writer. No, we’re going to sprinkle it *takes a pinch of information* through the story. If it helps, write a list of the big world-building info that you think they’re going to need to know.
You have pee-driven snow-skates made from the bones of dead velociraptors? Okay, wait outside.
You have a magic system and a political hierarchy and some complex interpersonal relationships and family histories? Come with me, we’re going to sprinkle that stuff through your story, taking note of what we’ve sprinkled so we don’t miss bits. Some can be sprinkled as dialogue, some as inner soliloquy kind of stuff, some as description when things are observed and encountered in due course.
The epic tales of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire have used snippets of dialogue over the course of many books to build up a picture of King Robert’s glory days, of Rhaegar Targaryen… and in some ways I hope he never writes their stories in full.
That’s it for Writing Dialogue part 1. (Part 2 is now done, here!) I’ll write a lot more of the nittier, grittier, cat litterier bits over the weekend.
Nice post. Key for me is honesty in dialogue. If the character is a racist scumbag, for example, then she needs to be shown as one, using throw away comments perhaps, even if we (the writer) have fallen in love with them. Guess it comes down to letting them have their own voice.
Thanks! And yes, I reckon you’re right about that. Honesty in dialogue is very important. I had a discussion with somebody about writing a main character that has glaring negative personality traits, and our conclusion was that it would probably only bother a reader if they never get pulled up on it…
“probably only bother a reader if they never get pulled up on it…” Made me think of John Constantine in the Hellblazer graphic novels. Negative personality traits to the extreme! He’s true to himself though, which is key.
I sooooo get what you are saying here. The was a particular instance in my book where the explanation of how the cannon worked and why they took a technological leap back of about 900 years took up 3 pages (and that was the edited version). On the advice of a beta reader, I turned this into dialogue (a lieutenant explaining to a civilian the history and firing sequence while they watched as it happened) and, hey presto, it went from being like Boba Fett’s wet wedding to Princess Leia in a desert bikini. Smooth…
Also a quick note: Smeghead? A Red Dwarf fan are we? Awesome.
Hells yeah I’m a Red Dwarf fan. It’s been a long while though. I might have to buy the DVDs for the education of my little-uns when they get to an appropriate age. Like maybe thirteen…
Haha, so the dialogue jumps off the page and strangles a Hutt with its chains? Awesome. 😉
Very useful! Thank you for posting!
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