Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sh*t My Characters Say: A Word or Three on Dialogue

I see dead people.

Okay. So not really.

However, I do hear imaginary ones. Lots of them.

They talk in my head.

All. The. Time.

I can barely hear myself think with the incessant jabbering going on inside my head. Characters come out of nowhere and invade my mental space. And most of them don’t pay rent. So, I carry with me, at all times, my special writing tools (fine tip Sharpie writing pens) and a variety of notebooks (one for each story idea floating around in my head) in order to transcribe their ramblings in a place where I can access them when I’m ready to write the story.  

Each of them has a different story, a distinctive voice that scratches and claws to be heard. For many people that would be cause for great consternation (and possibly medication). For most writers, those voices are welcome sounds and a great cause for celebration. Those voices are the seeds from which great stories are born. From those ramblings I usually get the best ideas and the beginnings of the all-important dialogue.

I love writing dialogue. I’m often told I have an ear for it. I learn more from my characters through dialogue than narrative. And my characters are usually nothing short of spunky and this side of hilarious.

When I first started writing novels, just a few short years ago (and without the forethought to purchase a book on the craft of novel writing), I didn’t really understand the purpose of dialogue so it read more like purposeless witty bantering.  

For this, I would like to apologize to my early readers. I was stupid. I didn’t know. As Oprah says, when you know better, you do better. Now I do better. Writing compelling dialogue isn’t easy. Now that I’m a writer, I think I read with a new eye. And the fact of the matter is I’ve read (and written) a lot of eye-rolling, crap dialogue in my days. So right now, I’m not gonna give you the standard blow by blow on dialogue, we've heard most of it before. I just want to share a few notes that have popped into my head through my own writing journey as I've started yet another edit of my J.J. McCall novels.  

1.       Effective dialogue will move the story forward.

Nothing makes my eyes roll faster than useless conversation that serves no purpose other than to show off a writer’s “little darlings.” I’m SO guilty…but I’ve learned. Understand this one key point: Dialogue is conversation with a purpose. And the purpose is to take the reader on a compelling journey from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. Sounds easy enough, but it’s not. If you have any conversations between characters that don’t fit that bill—delete and try again. I didn’t instinctively know how to tie the dialogue to the plot or how to use these seemingly random conversations to move my story forward when writing my first book. This is a skill I’ve learned through a lot of trial and error. One of the best pieces of advice I can give you is to find one of your favorite books, one with dialogue that made you green with envy, and then dissect how the author used the dialogue to move the story forward. Assess how it sounded. Ask yourself why it rang true. Reading cream of the crop novels in the same genre you write in is one of the best learning tools you will ever leverage in your career. 

Onto my observations...

2.       Allow your characters to speak—you know—like people

When I’m in reading mode, I can usually tell which authors have “an ear” for natural speech and the way people speak in every day conversations versus those who almost seem to force a voice onto their characters. Yes, your dialogue should have a purpose, but it should also sound like sh*t your characters would actually say. This isn’t an easy feat. One of the key things I notice in dialogue that throws me out of a story is that some writers tend to use more proper English when they write than one would use when they speak, which isn’t bad in English 101. But in entertaining literature, it can tend to make the dialogue sound stilted and the characters sound disingenuous which could cost the story a reader. My advice is always to just dial it down a notch. Know the rules of grammar so that you can understand when it’s okay to break them. There isn’t a rule of grammar I won’t break for the sake of delivering a great story to my readers. 

Another pet peeve: the author who stops using contractions when they write books. Why? Contractions are your friend. They are part of the natural way we speak. Use them in your dialogue. It’s okay. Be at one with your contractions.
           Read the Rhythm. 

One of the best ways to avoid stilted dialogue is to read your dialogue aloud. One thing I’ve learned about great dialogue is that it has a distinctive rhythm or a beat. When the rhythm is on the story reads like a dream—readers usually call these “easy reads.” Doesn’t give them headache or heartache. When the rhythm is off, it feels like a car sputtering to a breakdown three blocks from the gas station. It almost made it—but not quite. Painful.
In order to check the timing and rhythm of my passages, I usually read my dialogue out loud. If I’m stammering or can’t read through a passage smoothly, then I will tweak the dialogue until I can. 

4.       Shut up and listen! Let your characters speak for themselves. 

Don’t impose your will on a character or his/her story because you have a design. I try really hard to allow my characters to tell the stories the way they want to tell them. And I tend not to force my way into their conversations. They usually have a level of honesty that I personally do not. They often say things I wouldn’t or couldn’t say. They are often wiser than I could ever hope to be. 

As an author, my writing truth is that my best story ideas and scenes have come from just shutting the up, stepping aside, and playing voyeur (but not in a creepy, stalking way). I simply allow them to present me their story in their own way and in their own time. I have a simple rule. I listen to my characters banter back and forth. And about a quarter of the way into the conversation I start transcribing. By then, they’ve dispensed with the greetings and superfluous pleasantries and they are ready to get to down to the real communication. And ten times out of ten, it usually ends up a thousand percent better than anything I could ever think of. It’s not easy giving up control of a story to those voices in your head, but it’s usually for the best. 

5.       Humor is hard (and subjective)—we all need practice!

Humor is a huge part of my brand. When people pick up one of my novels, they expect to laugh. Not only do they expect to laugh but they expect to laugh out loud—often. And thank God I can usually deliver. When I do interviews for blogs or internet radio, I’m always asked, “Were you a comedian or class clown while you were growing up?” And my answer is not really. The truth of the matter is that I believe being funny is different from having a sense of humor. 

People who try to be funny can sometimes fall flat. It is your sense of humor that will allow you to see the comedic possibility in a scene or a line and deliver the joke in perfect time. I have been blessed with a great sense of humor (God-given gift, I take no credit)—and I can convey what makes me laugh on paper. And the beauty of writing is that I can be as funny as I want to be because I have time to plan it --as opposed to comedians who have to go off-the-cuff.. But it’s important for writers to understand where they stand on the  funny spectrum. Not everyone has that comedic talent. And nothing falls harder or splatters than a joke #fail. 

Comedians learn timing through practice. As writer, you have to do the same thing. Practice, practice, practice. And it won’t hurt to find a few very honest beta readers to help you find your funny…and who won’t be afraid to tell you when you don’t. 

Learning to write dialogue is one of the most difficult skills a writer must learn. If you think it’s easy, you’re probably not doing it as well as you could. But, as with anything else in this writing game, perfect practice makes perfect…or at least something deliciously close to it.     

What are your dialogue rules or tricks of the trade?

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1 comment:

  1. Ah, apostrophes. It's funny you mention the lack of them in writing conversational dialogue. As a broadcaster/voice over specialist, and script writer, I've been seeing this forever.For some reason, when writing something that's meant to be read in a conversational style, most writers avoid the contractions that would require apostrophes (can not instead of just writing can't.) But they also avoid using conversational words like gonna or wanna, which is what most people ACTUALLY say, as opposed to "going to," or "want to."

    But I think the apostrophe problem is that most folks seem to have no clue how or when to use them properly when they're doing their everyday writing, so I guess it's reflected in some writers' fiction style as well. (You see how I just used that apostrophe behind "writers?" I don't see many who even know how to do that. Nine times out of ten, [or ten out of ten] it would've been between the r and the s.)


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