Fiction writing can be demanding on the brain. Newbie Writers can be overwhelmed by the amount of information to be internalised and learned at the start of their careers.
Dialogue, Conflicts, narratives, all of these help to make up what we know as story telling elements. These are some of the real tools that a writer must learn and master to begin to put some weight behind their work.
Writing good dialogue can be a bit confusing for new writers and writers who have been at it for a while. I know that when I first put pen to paper dialogue seemed like a mountainous climb up to the realms of good writing. What do we think about when we want to write good dialogue?
It must reflect character
Dialogue should lead the reader along and into a new idea or conflict
Dialogue must have a main goal for both characters
The Goal of dialogue can settle something for one character and create a new conflict for the other character
What is it we are listening for?
A writer collects ideas and puts them into their work. To do this we listen to real people having conversations and make notes about them. They can be on paper notes or mental notes that create new paths of thought for a writer.
Real life conversations can be many things; laborious, boring, argumentative, confusing (somebody on drugs or drunk), Misunderstandings between two people, or two lovers cooing into each others’ ear about how wonderful the world is.
These conversations happen everywhere we go. At home and abroad, in a cafe or on the bus. At the supermarket – have you ever wondered what the cashier at your local supermarket would really like to say to the customer? There’s a lot of subtext happening when the cashier has to be pleasant to a total A-Hole.
Service workers are instructed to be nice to be customers. They are often given a set of phrases to repeat according to the situation. “Good morning, madam!” – “Can I help you, sir?”. They don’t mean a word of it most of the time because they don’t have the time or presence of mind to think about what they are saying.
Real life conversation is a gold-mine of information about how people relate to each other. These conversations are not much use to a writer looking for a cut-and-paste dialogue to to take home and use in a story. It doesn’t work that way, and anyway, as writers it’s our job to make sense of the world around us and write stories that help people understand the whys and whats of people and relationships. Straightforward entertainment is also a cool idea about why you write.
Our job – an important one because there aint nobody else doing it – is to collate information. Let it sieve into the mind and finally settle deep into our writer brains. You’ll tend to find that your writer brain can chuck out the rubbish talk, the meaningless gibberish that came with the interesting dialogue that you heard, then make sense of it in a way that a reader can enjoy and feel.
The “ums” and “Errs”, and those sentences that begin and stop half way through. They tell us something about character in real life but they don’t tell readers anything in a story. Maybe a person is always speaking in utterances, they just mumble stuff and then finally when another person asks them what the hell it is they want to say, they say it. I’d go for the idea that they are insecure about their own ideas. Interesting. Listen further and you might discover that the listener helps them out, knowing them to insecure so they draw the person out, give them a feeling of confidence to speak and we hear them express a complete idea. Watch their face, maybe it lights up, blushes, smiles and sparkles at having been taken seriously. That’s where it’s at. The expressions, the actions and the lack of speech that conversations cause. The real meaty dialogue we are searching for can be found there, in the results of a conversation and the resulting responses on both sides.
Those results in a conversation are what we are about; we write dialogues that lead somewhere and give the reader a sense of satisfaction at having understood further about the story we are telling. A good writer will develop all of this through scene work. Constructing a dialogue that is meaningful and creates a shift in feelings and intentions on the side of the characters. Remember the scene, Two characters meeting, talking, creating conflict through revelations and leaving one character up and the other down. Somebody is the loser in each dialogue and somebody is better off with the upper hand. The power shifts, the happiness or static position of a character is upset or destroyed through a powerful dialogue that created conflict and therefore caused the character to have to take action. Both characters were given motivation.
Whatever type of story you are writing, short-story or novel, make it snappy and precise. Short stories tend to demand dialogue that is quick to the point, sharp and biting. This is mainly because you are writing a short story and are limited by word counts. Nobody gets the chance to express their monologues and metaphors, or orations in a short story because it’s short. This very fact of writer discipline is what creates the special feeling and enjoyment of short story, a great art it is, too.
Often, a short story dialogue will be like listening to the end of of conversation. It gets to the point after the mush and dross of words have been said – but the writer omits those dross words and expects the reader to be able to fill in a few gaps.
A novel allows for longer dialogues that make their way up to the point. This allows the writer to create more tension, insert character quirks, have them deal with interruptions that could be location descriptions. Readers enjoy taking their time before being smacked in the face with good dialogue. Novel dialogue leads somewhere and must be tight, there must be meaning to each word, but the room that novelist has to play around can sometimes lead to dreariness and lazy writing that he or she gets away with once in a while, but shouldn’t be there. Be quick minded when thinking about dialogue.
Gleaning the best from real life Dialogue
Listen to conversations that interest you. You may discover that it’s the way a person speaks that appeals to you and not what they are saying. Mothers speaking about their children is rich with emotion for sure, but I’ve noticed how mothers, who have to protect their little ones, tend to be factual, straight-forward and sometimes managerial about dealing with the little tikes. I think a good mother instinctively knows that emotions about her love for her child don’t protect, actions do. There’s no lubby-dubby stuff with mothers.
Listening to conversations that could turn into an explosion are gold-mines. Take a walk along a busy shopping street and you’ll find a husband or boyfriend who’s had enough and just wants to go home and get on with his life. The wife/girlfriend has only been in five shops – he’s gotta be kidding, right? – she needs those shoes, and you don’t get between a girl and her new shoes. When you listen to a snippet of their conversation you might find that he’s trying his best to be diplomatic about things – there’s a lot of stuff he’s not going to mention, subtext about computers and games – she’s unashamedly telling him how important this shopping trip is, that she really needs to have these shoes; she can’t say which shoes, she’ll know when she sees them. He doesn’t get that. If you can’t say which shoes you want, how do you know you want them?
The conversation will spiral, twist and turn into a myriad of ideas that don’t seem to be related to shoes or being comfortably at home in front of a computer. Soon other issues will be brought into the dialogue. He’ll mention something about last week and how he had to traipse around the shops with her looking for skirts. She’ll gasp. “Are you telling me you didn’t enjoy yourself?”. He’s trying to tell her that he’s been a good boy and he wants permission to go home now.
The conversation can go on and on. It won’t stop until one speaker decides that they are tired and so they offer a way out. “Fine, go and play with your computer”. He can go now, but she’s being domineering so he can’t have his macho side hurt. He’ll tell her that he’ll leave when he wants, not when she says so.
Something has to give, the conversation will crumble one way or another and she’ll win the day – there’s no fighting a woman with perfectly good reasons for wanting new shoes. After listening to this universal couples conversation, you’ll sift through the things said and the things not said.
The things not said are things that we suspect about a person. Sometimes a person can believe that a person said something, but they didn’t. That’s how powerful subtext can be. How often have you heard a person accuse another of saying something, and the other person denies it?
When you write dialogue the subtext must be in character. The reader needs to be identified with the character and be able to make a guess at the subtext. Otherwise, they’ll be left wondering about that part of the story. Of course, any subtext that you bind into your dialogues should be relevant, it should refer to something or imply something important about the situation or something that might have happened.
People like to make references to past events, implying that they are relevant to the present conversation. That it has a bearing on the outcome of what’s happening now. This can create excellent tension and also be a lead into the outcome of a scene.
Listening to conversations and reading other writer’s dialogue can show you subtexts. Good writing and bad writing is informative.
Conflict – where does it come from?
Beginner writers can make the mistake and believe that conflict comes from physical actions. The character must do something, commit a violent act, fire a gun or steal money to create conflict. This is not true.
A common trivial question people like to ask. ” How long do you lie in bed for, before you get up?”
The answer is personal and it gives the listener information about how disciplined the other person is. It shows them a side of character that we find interesting because it’s personal and therefore hidden.
The question asks about how you deal with a conflict.
Where’s the conflict? Under the covers, a warm cosy bed that offers everything you need at that time. The body is relaxed and the warmth increases that smooth, sleepy feeling that only a fool would leave that bed.
The conflict is in breaking a pattern of action that seems to be the wisest choice; stay in bed, stay relaxed and be happy.
We are conditioned to deal with conflicts. Take up challenges and keep going against all odds. Getting out of bed can be likened to climbing a mountain or moving house to some people. It’s a lovely static position that we have found in life – away from conflict.
The moment a person wakes up they are faced with a choice, to get up or stay in bed. Conditioning creates the conflict. The conflict is in the mind and it’s after the choice is made that action is taken to get up and face the cold world.
Characters who hold a gun in their hand and threaten to fire it are more fun that characters who just fire away at everything that moves.
Most people agree that action movies and books just don’t work. Why? because they rapidly become boring. There’s no conflict, well, there was, for a moment when the antagonist picked up a gun and pointed it at the protagonist. But she fired it too quickly. The reader didn’t stand a chance at feeling something about the tension caused by picking up a gun and pointing it. Bang! Bang! It’s all over, whoopy.
Life doesn’t play by the rules of fiction. The actions and ideas are all from real life, more or less. The conflicts are those moments that we normally don’t think about or see behind the actions. Writers take those moments of conflict and expand them. We hear them spoken or implied in conversations, they are the little nuggets that test our skills at telling a good story. The writer listens and gleans ideas from everyday life and then like a skilled smithy works them into stories and dialogues that make sense.
Listening to real dialogues gives us material to use and put into our our own version of the world. Leave out the dross and the meaningless blurbs and you will start writing good dialogue. You clear the path to a good conflict that makes good reading.
Listen to arguments and ask yourself questions; are these people lovers? Are they enemies? Family? Colleagues? Is one of them trying to end the argument but failing? Why is he failing? Is the other person just an argumentative person who loves the strife?
So many questions to ask.
You can also try this experiment.
Observe two people in the street. They have just met. People wait for each other all of the time.
Watch them interact with each other.
Observe the body language. Is it ‘loud’, does she move her feet? Does he use his hands to explain?
How close are they standing to each other?
What do you feel so far? Are they friends or lovers, is the meeting a secret? Does one of them keep looking around for something?
Are they dressed-up or wearing everyday clothes?
Look at the facial gestures and how they relate to the body language. Is it conflicting? Is it harmonious? That tells you a lot.
Finally, when you’ve had enough, make up your own mind about what happened and why they were meeting.
Write a short piece about them describing the waiting, the first seconds when they met and their reactions to each other.
Think about secrets held back (subtext), things said but not meant, dominance in the conversation, and conflicting body language and facial expressions.
Thoughts on what not to include in written dialogue
- Profanity, Slang and just plain bad language. Today, many young writers are using profanity and bad language to characterise their protagonists or antagonists. It’s weak and feeble. It doesn’t add anything to character. The difference between an”Ugh!” and a “Fuck” is minimal. The meanings are about as strong as instant coffee.
- The writer may think that it’s a powerful expression, she may feel its intensity and write the reactions into the other characters but it’s really all in her head. The reactions are what matters and they may appear right, but if you feel that your dialogue can go somewhere meaningful by shifting character feelings and thoughts, tension and reactions by the use of the word “fuck”, then you’ll soon see that it falls flat on its face.
- The outcome of the dialogue is not determined by the word “Fuck” and the anger and hate that it’s supposedly conveying.
- We live in a world where the word “Fuck” has become everyday speech – even in front of old ladies and small children.
- We also live in a world where people don’t think about what they are saying.
- Watch a video on the word “Fuck”, after watching, you’ll understand how it only means what the writer wants it to mean and can be interpreted anyway the listener wants.
Every conversation is a gold mine – if you know what to look for
Listen to yourself and then hear it reflected in other conversations – rhythms of speech, argumentative people and introverts on the loose.
Experiment all of the time, you never know what will happen until you’ve written it.