WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 5 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.
PART 5 – DIALOGUE
You can’t judge a book by its cover. You judge it by its words. The same is true for dialogue. You learn a lot about characters by what they say. And while sometimes a character will say one thing and do another, that discrepancy, and the reasons behind it, tells us a lot about that character as well.
If you write great dialogue, consider yourself lucky. Many writers cite it as the most difficult part of a novel to get right. However, there are ways to improve it.
Tips for writing dialogue:
First let’s understand the function of dialogue in a novel. It’s a way to break up exposition, convey information, hear the characters’ voices, and communicate more directly with non-POV characters. Speech patterns, mannerisms, and vocabulary can inform us of a character’s heritage, education, values, and personality, or they can be used to mislead us.
Good dialogue sounds natural; authentic, but not realistic. Actual speech patterns can be too wordy, too vague, or just boring. For inspiration, listen to people talking in airports, restaurants, shopping malls, and parties for speech patterns, key words and phrases that are different, or go beyond what you’re used to hearing.
When writing dialogue, it’s important to hear it spoken out loud. You can do this yourself, but if you can get someone (even a computer) to read it to you, that’s even better. If the reader stumbles over your dialogue, it usually indicates the writing is awkward or doesn’t mean what you intended. Listen not only for how it sounds, but also the meaning behind the words.
What can dialogue do?
• Slow down a scene without slowing the pace, like a zoom lens that brings you right into the moment.
• Give readers a close-up of moments of passion, conflict, or danger
• Show purpose or define a scene; focus the story
• Inform us of the connection between characters – using shorthand or brevity shows intimacy or awareness in a relationship. (Use M dashes when a speaker is interrupted and ellipses when a speaker’s thoughts fade out.)
Recognizing bad dialogue is easier than figuring out why it’s bad or how it can be reworked. If you’re not happy with your dialogue, try this exercise:
Writing free-form dialogue releases you from linear thinking by using the right brain instead of the left. (The left brain is the logical, organized half, perfect for plotting or editing.) Select a scene from your first chapter that includes conversation. You can start the dialogue from scratch, or continue the existing one. Then write as quickly as you can; don’t bother with punctuation, tags, or details. Keep writing until you’ve relinquished your control over your characters and let them take over – continue until they’ve had their say. Then review and add tags; identify speakers, place, etc. Add your sensory details.
When you’re done, revise, revise, and revise! It’s like peeling an onion. You have to get past what’s always been said (the surface) to reach deeper levels of understanding.
I have found that this writing exercise is very helpful if you’re stuck in other ways. We tend to fall back on left-brain logic to solve problems in our writing when what we need is the emotional punch that comes from right-brain thinking. If any part of your story isn’t working despite outlines, index cards, or editing, try free-form writing a conversation between your characters, whether they appear in the scene or not. Chances are you’ll garner at least a nugget, if not more.
If the exercise doesn’t work for you the first time, try again. Use a different mix of characters, or put them in a different setting if necessary. For example, lets say your scene involves two characters arguing in a restaurant and free-form writing their dialogue isn’t helping. Try using two background characters, like a couple sitting at an adjacent table, or the waiter and busboy, and let them chat about your characters’ behavior or conversation. Or, take your arguing characters out of the restaurant and put them on an airplane, in line at a taxi stand on a stormy night, or at a party.
The purpose of this series is to help polish your first chapter. Once that has been done, don’t stop. Work on each subsequent chapter until it shines. Good luck.