Remember the last time you read dialogue and it didn’t sound genuine? Something was off, odd or not quite believable? Perhaps the wording did not suit the character. For example, unless a man is a decorator, painter or artist, he won’t point to a color and call it sage. In general, men tend to label colors by the eight colors found in the Crayola crayon set they used in kindergarten. Oh, and by the way, more men than women are colorblind, so some men are even more limited in their ability to describe colors. So when a character doesn’t sound believable, often the writer failed to conduct enough research for the character to talk the talk.
The reader wants to fall into the story, to be transported into a different world, to experience things not readily available in her life, whether it is a world of horror, danger, mystery, romance or adventure. It’s up to you to make sure your characters realistically represent their profession, trade, hobby or craft. If your English butler talks like your rural American firefighter, then it’s time to dig deeper.
GATHER BASIC INFORMATION
If your story involves characters in a specific career, then research it. You can learn basic information about any legal job from the Occupational Outlook Handbook, compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ . For hundreds of different types of jobs, the Occupational Outlook Handbook describes: the training and education needed, earnings, expected job prospects, what workers do on the job, and working conditions. In addition, the Handbook gives job search tips, links to state job markets and more. Armed with the basics, you can then learn more about how your character speaks.
DO FIELD WORK
If at all possible, go to places where your character would go. Find a friend or relative who does this kind of job. Listen to how they speak and what they say. At the end of their work day, what hurts? Hands, head, feet, back, ears, eyes? If your hero is a trucker, go eat at truck stops and listen. What do they talk about? How do they express themselves? What specialized vocabulary do they use? Jot down unfamiliar terms and words to look up later. What are the trends and technology that have changed their job over the years? Prepare questions and offer to buy a few of them lunch so you can ask about their work. People rarely turn down the chance to talk about themselves. Many will share stories about their life. Find one who can serve as your go-to expert.
COMPOSE A LIST OF INTERVIEW QUESTIONS
What more do you need to know about your character’s type of work? Write factual questions, to get information, to open discussion. Write personal questions, to elicit anecdotes, to reveal personality and character. Examples: “What’s the most unusual case you’ve ever had?” “What other careers interest you?” “What hobbies do you enjoy?” “What would you like people to know about your profession?” and “What myths and misconceptions do people have about what you do?”
FIND AN EXPERT
If you can find an expert in the field to interview, then do it.
If your character’s career is an unusual profession (airtraffic controller, coroner, animal trainer, circus performer, etc), then contact the publicity representative for an organization of the profession. Another source for locating experts on a topic is ProfNet or Professors Network. This free service is used by journalists worldwide to locate public information officers in government, business and academia. Send in your request to email@example.com and be sure to state your purpose for the information.
CONDUCT AN INTERVIEW
In person interviews work best, but phone interviews can also work. Ask for permission to record the interview, if you plan to record it. I write for magazines, so I tell subjects that I flunked shorthand and would like to record the interview so I can quote them accurately. The high-paying magazines require a written transcript of interviews, so I use that reason, but let the subject know why you are interviewing him and how long the interview will take. Time yourself and stick to the time limit you gave.
When I interview subjects, I always ask whom they would recommend for me to talk to for more information. I also ask if I can email with more questions if I need to. Most folks agree to follow-up questions. When my article is published or reprinted, I always send a copy to my interview source with a thank-you note. So far, I haven’t published a novel, but I would gladly name names of people who helped me in the front of the book and send them a copy with a thank-you note.
VET YOUR MANUSCRIPT
Though this isn’t done in newspaper or magazine work, you can ask your source to read your book and tell you if the behavior and dialogue rings true. You are not handing control of the story to the expert, but gaining his opinion. It could prevent a simple goof up. I once had an interview subject tell me he was going to use the Armstrong starter on his seaplane. When he demonstrated it, I realized he meant he was going to hand prop the plane. If I had published that the Piper Cub used an Armstrong starter, every pilot reading it would have laughed at my gullibility. I vetted the article with my husband, who has a seaplane rating. He alerted me to the joke. I kept the Armstrong starter in the article, but used it to show the rogue nature of seaplane pilots.
Because I am working on a suspense trilogy with an FBI agent hero, I discovered that manuscripts, plays, and screenplays that involve characters who work for the FBI, can be reviewed by the Investigative Publicity and Public Affairs Unit of the FBI to ensure an accurate portrayal of the FBI. A sign-off (showing that the manuscript has been vetted) from this unit would be helpful for marketing. This unit prioritizes work based on the likelihood of publication, so be sure to note if the manuscript is under contract with a publisher or producer.
Doing all this work to make the character dialogue sound real might seem extreme, but the top fiction writers create believable characters because they either have familiarity with the character’s work or they have conducted thorough research. Though she probably never worked as a coroner, Tess Gerritsen can draw on her medical degree to create the character Maura Isles. If you want your dialogue to ring true, to reveal deep character, first you have to research what makes your characters who they are. Get to know them so well that you can tell when they are walking the walk and talking the talk.
This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping their website, so I am posting it again to keep it available.
People recognize terrible dialogue when they hear it in movies, or on television or read it in books. It comes off wooden, robotic, confusing, lecturing, boring or in some way artificial sounding. Examples abound in B-grade movies, comic books, soap operas, and probably in the last book you refused to continue reading. Don’t be that writer.
Dialogue is NOT conversation put on paper.
Imagine that instead of writing a novel, you are writing a play or a screenplay. By their nature, these are dialogue-driven works and as such, soar or sink by the quality of the spoken interaction between the characters. The most common blunder in writing dialogue comes from trying to reproduce normal conversation. I dare you to go record random conversation at the mall and then transcribe it. It is gibberish. Stammering, unfinished sentences that leave the listener hanging on a word, interruptions, rambling, redundancies, slang, misuse of language—these are the hallmarks of normal conversation.
Think of dialogue as value-added, condensed, poetic, crafted simulations of conversation.
Learning how to craft dialogue well matters because up to half of a novel is dialogue.
In general, in literary fiction, the ratio of narrative description and dialogue runs low on dialogue. Literary fiction tends to present story through a character’s inner life, with longer sentences and longer paragraphs that emphasize the beauty of language and imagery, rather than on the action of the story. When a story encompasses a decades-long history, it demands the use of narrative to summarize, interpret and present the events within. Examples: Faulkner, Dickens, Kingsolver, Tolstoy, and Michener.
In commercial fiction, or genre fiction, the ratio of narrative to dialogue runs closer to 50/50. Readers of commercial fiction prefer the immediacy of experiencing the story over the look-back-at-one’s-life kind of story. Because of the influence of television and movies, reader’s attention span has grown shorter and this, too, affects the narrative/dialogue ratio. With almost half their story presented through dialogue, genre fiction writers benefit from developing this aspect of their craft. Examples: Elmore Leonard, Irwin Shaw, Mark Twain, Richard Price, and Tobias Wolff.
Dreadful dialogue comes from using dialogue when narrative or exposition would work better.
When writers use dialogue to deliver backstory, present flashbacks, to reveal character’s thoughts and feelings, or to explain complex issues, history, or technical information, the dialogue suffers. It’s like a carpenter using a wrench to hammer in a nail. Sure, it can be done, but why work so hard with the wrong tool for the job?
Delivering backstory through dialogue is storytelling within a story. Generally, anything longer than three consecutive lines of speech by one character comes off as lecturing, so, even if your character is supposed to be a bore, demonstrate it once, then move on. Backstory should be sprinkled, not shoveled. Can you spread out the delivery of the details of backstory for revelations?
Examine your reasons for telling backstory through dialogue. Why is one character telling so much to another character? Would it be more dramatic and interesting to have the other character discover this information in bits and pieces and then confront the ‘telling’ character for more? Allow the listening character to challenge the teller to break up the lecture.
Presenting flashbacks through dialogue is also tricky. Flashbacks are internal. Is the flashback worth stopping the flow of action? When presented in movies, they can begin with a voice-over along the lines of “I remember that morning twelve years ago when I first met Mr. Adams….” The best use of a flashback is when the character has reached a point of utter confusion or frustration and he has to make a decision. To make that decision, he will think about things from his past for clues and answers. Think of a flashback as a question answered by memory. For example, the character asks himself—How on earth did I end up in this situation? When the character recalls the decisions he made that led to his current state, he reaches the point of understanding, which answers his question, and the flashback is over. He can then apply this insight to the present situation.
Revealing a character’s thoughts and feelings through dialogue seems artificial because thoughts and feelings are internal. Who is going to declare absolutely honest thoughts and feelings with others in a conversation? Okay, children do, but unless your character is a child, it could be ‘oversharing’. Leave that stuff for the social networking souls who post “Hi, brushed my teeth today. Sure didn’t want to go to class, but have a quiz in history class I have to take.” You might as well shoot your reader to put him out of his misery. There must be a compelling reason for a character to share personal thoughts and feelings. If such sharing is necessary for the story, keep it brief and dramatic, such as in a fight scene or in a highly dramatic moment. The exception for a character sharing his thoughts with another would be two or more people brainstorming together, or in group therapy, but even then, keep it brief.
Using dialogue to explain complex issues, history or technical information is a sure-fire way to drive the reader away. Unless you can make this dialogue an argument, don’t use dialogue. It does not sound natural to use dialogue to explain complex issues or technical information because long stretches of speech are lectures. If the reader needs to know the time, don’t tell him how to build a clock. Narrative summary works best here.
If a dialogue scene in your manuscript is there to deliver backstory, present flashback, reveal character’s thoughts and feelings or explain something, then change the scene to exposition.
Dialogue is designed to perform these functions:
Advance the plot. The inciting incident, key turning points, the climax and other important emotional moments have the greatest impact when the events unfold in front of the reader.
Build to a change in a relationship, a power shift, or a turning point in the action. Make the talk between characters matter. If the talk does not cause a change or mark a change, then why is it in the story?
Create immediacy. The reader experiences the conversation in real time, along with the characters. This allows the reader to feel part of the story by drawing her into the experience.
Reveal character. How a character expresses himself changes depending on who he is interacting with—spouse, child, boss, colleague, or adversary. Characters talk differently when under stress or in danger. A person’s character is tested when having to choose between doing the right thing and doing the easy thing.
Set the mood to create an emotional impact on the reader. It is better to make the reader cry than to make the characters cry. In dialogue, conversations can be elevated above the commonplace because the writer can craft the dialogue with imagery and precision. Characters can speak bolder, wittier and more insightfully than real people. Brief statements hold the greatest impact.
Begin or heighten conflict. It is human nature to desire to witness the action rather than hear about it second hand. If the conversation does not affect the relationship of the characters involved in it, then why is this conversation being played out for the reader? Show the fight scene.
Create suspense. The reader knows more than the characters because the reader is privy to all the conversations and actions. Stimulate the reader’s curiosity, raise questions. Characters lie and misunderstand one another in dialogue. The reader enjoys sorting out the liars from the truthful.
Move action along swiftly. When the reader goes down the page quickly, it gives the feel of fast action. Dialogue increases the pacing of any scene because things happen when characters meet face to face.
Reveal tidbits of the past. Use it like Hansel and Gretel, dropping crumbs to leave a trail. Lead the reader along.
Great dialogue does more than one of these functions at the same time. Make sure the dialogue carries its weight—that it does double or triple duty in the scene. Read your dialogue scene out loud into a recorder. When you play it back, can you hear clunky phrases? Are you gasping for breath in long sentences? Revise. Polish. Shorten.
You can craft dialogue that resonates with readers long after they put down the book. It takes effort, insight and aiming for deep character to make your dialogue memorable.
This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website. They are revamping the site so I am posting this article here to keep it available.
Dialogue without conflict is talking heads. There, I’ve got it out in the open. In commercial, or genre fiction, dialogue makes up half of the novel with narration as the other half. This is why learning to craft great dialogue matters.
Inexperienced writers tend to overcompensate for lame dialogue by inflating it with fighting words, believing that the bigger the conflict, the stronger the dialogue. While dialogue without conflict is boring, dialogue with falsely melodramatic dialogue is disappointing to the reader. And no, using extra exclamation points doesn’t impress readers. When the dialogue presents a level of conflict appropriate to the characters in the situation, then the reader will believe the story.
So, how does the writer achieve this balance? Dive deeply into the characters. Like an actor, step into the character and see the world through his eyes. Write the scene or chapter from the point of view of one character, expressing and acting on that character’s goals and motives.
Every character in the story operates on his own long-term and short-term motives. So, after the first draft of the scene is done, go back and revisit the scene by exploring the motives and goals of every character in the scene—one by one. You will discover more sources of conflict, because each character can be an obstacle to the other characters unintentionally.
What do your characters want or desire in this time and place? Because everyone wants something, there will be a power struggle.
Everyone has his own motives and goals—his agenda.
This doesn’t mean the characters all have the same goal, like two men interviewing for the same job. And it doesn’t mean that the characters have opposite goals, like two football teams that want to win by defeating the other team. Sometimes the conflict arises organically from the basic nature of the people in the scene.
Here is a small list of organic character elements that can create tension or conflict between people: impatience, misunderstanding, bureaucracy, differences [gender, race, culture, age, language], experiences, attitudes, and secrets.
Let’s say we have a young mother doing chores at home with her toddler. The doorbell rings, so the mother goes to the door with her child clinging to her leg. A salesman is at the door. We can identify the agendas of each character easily from their basic nature. The mother wants to do laundry. The salesman wants to sell a vacuum cleaner. The child wants mother’s full attention. How does power shift during the scene? Ideally, the protagonist will lose the power struggle and be driven to take greater risks next time.
The writer has inside knowledge of every character’s goals and motivations—but the characters conflict because they don’t have this knowledge. To craft the appropriate level of conflict for the scene, let’s examine a few examples of dialogue.
The lowest level of conflict is the absence of it. This is known in the publishing world as chit-chat, talking heads, plot stoppers and so on. An example of everyday chit-chat:
“Hi, Susie,” said Anne.
“Hello there, Anne,” said Susie.
“Thanks for coming.” Anne said. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing you.”
“Oh, me, too. I want to hear all about your date with Mark.”
Unless this conversation offers something meaty soon, the reader will start skimming pages. If the conversation sounds like air kisses then it is chit-chat. Who wants to eavesdrop on a conversation between two best friends in cheerful agreement about anything? Yawn. If your critique partners note that your chapters seem “a little long,” perhaps they mean that your dialogue doesn’t propel the story forward. With all the books out in the world to read, readers can and will drop boring ones. A test for chit chat—strip down a scene to pure dialogue, no attributions (Bill said) and no narrative or character’s thoughts. If the naked dialogue isn’t intriguing, consider cutting it out. With nothing remotely interesting or newsworthy in this snippet of dialogue between Anne and Susie, we move on.
Taking the same Susie/Anne chit-chat to the next level, we shorten the greeting to one line each and then drop in a note of discord, just a note–still civil, but with a hint of confrontation.
“Hi, Susie,” said Anne.
“Hey,” said Susan.
“Get over it.” Susan sighed. “Tell me about your date with Mark.”
Feel that twinge of discomfort? An entire scene can be cooked up with this level of simmering conflict. Think of people at work who have to get along, but don’t particularly like one another. I believe the term for such a relationship is a combination of friend and enemy–frienemy. Ever deal with distant relatives from the shallow end of the gene pool? Or the neighbor who spouts fierce political opinions without being asked? Draw from experience and pay attention to the signs of simmering conflict at the next social gathering. I don’t suggest taking notes, but watch and learn.
Conflicts have winners and losers. Can you identify the victor in a segment of dialogue? Even friends poke fun at one another. Men often verbally spar to demonstrate their Alpha Male qualities in front of women. Siblings draw from a lifetime of stories to tease and provoke one another as an expression of intimacy.
Here’s an example of verbal sparring from Janet Evanovich’s High Five. Stephanie Plum is an inexperienced bail bondsman sent to pick up a man who skipped his court date.
“What’s the matter?” he said. “You never see a short person before?”
“Only on television.”
“Guess this is your lucky day.”
I handed him my business card. “I represent Vincent Plum Bail Bonds. You missed your court date, and we’d appreciate it if you’d reschedule.”
“No,” Briggs said.
“No, I’m not going to reschedule. No. I’m not going to court. It was a bogus arrest.”
“The way our system works is that you’re supposed to tell that to the judge.”
“Fine. Go get the judge.”
“The judge doesn’t do house calls.”
“Listen, I got a lot of work to do,” Briggs said, closing his door. “I gotta go.”
“Hold it!” I said. “You can’t just ignore an order to appear in court.”
The man then shuts and locks his door. So are the conflicting agendas clear? Is it easy to declare a winner in this power struggle? Evanovich’s characters speak their minds boldly and without apology and her readers adore her for it.
This level of conflict keeps tension taut without car chases, bombs exploding or the usual B-movie tactics. The reader keeps turning pages to find out if the conflict escalates. An argument, by the way, is a slick way to sneak in morsels of back story as long as it sounds natural and conversational. During an argument people often dredge up old issues and events for debate.
Screenwriter Joss Whedon mastered dialogue in physical confrontations. See his television shows and movies, such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “The Doll House”, Firefly, Toy Story, and The Avengers.
His characters notoriously maintain their agendas (goals and motivations) throughout the action. In “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” the character of Buffy is a valley girl, hormonal, moody, obsessed with fashion and oh, by the way, she has a supernatural gift for locating and killing paranormal creatures, especially vampires. During one scene, Buffy and her friends battle vampires in a graveyard while arguing about the challenges of finding a prom date. Buffy remains a valley girl no matter what she’s doing.
The key to writing believable dialogue for a fight scene is to remember each character’s agenda. While action and narrative overshadow dialogue in fight scenes, the dialogue still matters.
A showdown takes two-thirds of the novel to set up. Generally, one can apply an inverse ratio of conflict to dialogue—the more intense conflict, the less the need for dialogue. Ah, but that’s because by the time the showdown happens, the reader should understand why the fight matters to the warriors. The stakes have been spelled out clearly and the showdown is the natural and inevitable response to the previous smaller battles in the story. Fighting for the sake of violence should be reserved for madmen and fools. The level of conflict in the story should suit the value of winning and the value of losing. Remember to clarify for the reader why the protagonist and antagonist take the actions they take.
In the showdown scene even a brief sentence can strike like a blow. A parting example from Star Wars–“Luke, I am your father.” Dialogue that matters has power in meaning.
This article first appeared on the SavvyAuthors.com website in 2012. They have revamped their website, so I am posting it here so it remains available.