Monday, June 20, 2011

Make Your Dialogue Come...Alive!



Oh, yeah. Dialogue. For most of us, it's the deal-breaker in a novel. You can have a great plot, lots of action, great locations, well thought out worlds and lots of twists, but if your dialogue is flat or unrealistic, it's like too much baking powder in your favorite homemade cookies. It ruins the whole experience. I've done a lot of research on making dialogue more real, as well as more memorable, and I found some interesting tips.

Let’s start with the simpler part, the realism. In the old days, dialogue was often longer and more drawn out. If you read books like Lord of the Rings, you noticed lots of long speeches. In older books, sometimes a single character’s dialogue could go one for a paragraph or more without a break. These days it's more back and forth; quick, snappy exchanges where one character speaks, then the second, then back to the first.

Think of it as a game of catch. In the game, when someone throws you the ball, do you stand there for several minutes, or even 30 seconds, holding the ball before you throw it back? No. Most of us would throw it back immediately, and our partner does the same. Dialogue works the same way. If you ask someone a question, and they go on for several minutes, you'd probably want to cut them off. Likewise in a story. If you have long speeches without interruption from another character, readers will grow impatient and lose interest. Keeping dialogue short, snappy, and back and forth will keep readers from getting bored.

When it comes to realistic dialogue, there are a lot of aspects to consider in order to maintain the reader’s interest. Adding tension, holding things back, avoiding dialogue tags, and using memorable lines, what writer and literary agent Donald Maass calls "zingers." But first, we'll focus only on the back and forth aspect.

Here's an example. First, we have dialogue with longer exchanges. Our characters for this exchange are Lance and Drake.

"What did you do, yesterday, Lance?"

"Well, I went to the store for mom, washed the car, and then went to my girl friends for a movie."

Drake shrugged. "Cool."

Oi. Can anyone see what's wrong here? Let's start with, BORING. People don't talk like that in real life, at least not if they want any friends. And in a book, we want to see something more interesting than average in our characters anyway. Which means we'll have to do a lot better than that to impress readers.

There are other problems here, no tension, nothing to grab us, nothing to make us want to find out what's going on, but dialogue is a many layered thing, so let's go a step at a time here, and fix the back and forth issue first. 

To most of you, it likely looks like Lance is the problem. He's the one with the longer boring line that has nothing interesting in it. People do those things every day, and they certainly are realistic, but again, readers want something above average, a character who does things that make us want to be in their shoes. Also, there's nothing to make us ask questions, keep us guessing. Also, notice another problem. Lance's bland reply doesn't leave much for Drake to say. This is where writers sometimes get stuck, unsure how to continue, what to have a person say next. There’s no energy here, no life to keep the story going, so it dies. So, let’s kick it up a notch. 

"What did you do, yesterday, Lance?"

"Hung out with my girl."

Drake shrugged. "That's it? Just, "hung out?"

"Yup."

See what happens here? Already it's a little better. This is a classic case of less is more. We left out the more boring parts, plus Lance told very little about what went on, which does two things. It makes us wonder what he did that he's being so dismissive, and it also makes us curious about the character. It gives him a personality. We wonder if he's just one of those mono- syllabic guys who just doesn't like to open up, or if there's more going on here. Such as, he's being deliberately coy. Plus, Lance’s reply is more engaging, which gives us more to work with in Drake’s reply. Furthermore, Drake presses him, and he doesn't give him anything, which not only adds to Lance's mystery, but makes readers want to know more. In writing, we call that "hold backs." Making it difficult for characters to get the information they want adds mystery and evokes questions in the reader’s mind.

You’ll have to forgive me for using the same example throughout this exercise. I’m working on a layering principle, adding elements in stages, and that’s easier to do that using the same one.

So here, we have two elements of at work. The use of withholding information to keep the reader guessing, and the use of short, back and forth beats that give the story a fast pace. But even so, this could be a lot better. Even Drake's lines are a little dry. Why? Because they don't paint a picture of his character. So let’s jack his up a bit.

"Sooo, what did you do, yesterday, Lance?"

"Hung out with my girl."

Drake smiled. "That's it, eh? You just hung out?"

"Yup."

This is a lot more interesting, yes? Where Lance's simple, one word answers might suggest something deeper, Drake's responses add to that. Now we have a sense of his character as an observant, and perhaps nosy friend, who insists something went on last night, maybe even when it didn't. By simply putting the emphasis on "you" we get that he's almost taunting Lance. And by making his actions more intriguing, a smile instead of a shrug, our interest is also piqued. Drake's imagination is running wild, and as such, so are ours. Which makes us want to know. Is Drake just the kind of guy who reads something into everything, is he just razzing Lance, or is he right? And if he is right, what did happen with Lance and his girl? We could even dig deeper as readers and wonder if the girl has a reputation, or if Drake knows Lance and her relationship is such that when they get together, highjinks ensue. Depending on the type of book, it doesn't always have to be the obvious either. But can we still make it better? Oh yes. Always. But before we amp up the dialogue again, lets move onto our next point. Dialogue tags.

Effective dialogue relies on a lot of things, but a big element is timing. Timing is what allows us to maintain a fast pace, hold the tension throughout the prose, and to a large extent, give the exchange a feeling of realism. One of the keys to good timing in dialogue is to avoid dialogue tags where possible, instead exchanging them with action beats. Dialogue tags "tell" rather than "show," telling the reader what to take from the exchange, rather than letting them see it in the prose. They also force us to use more words, and passive ly and ing words, which weaken the writing if used without need. They also kill the pace and drain tension, thus losing the reader's interest. Timing is perhaps the hardest part of employing realistic dialogue. One too many words or one weaker word disrupts the flow, which throws the whole exchange out of balance. Here, let me show you.

"Sooo, what did you do, yesterday, Lance?" Drake taunted.

"Hung out with my girl."

"That's it, eh?" Drake said doubtfully. "You just hung out?" 

"Yup."

You can see the issue here. When dialogue is effective, the tags are unneeded, because it's often clear who is speaking without it, and the reader can infer the character’s tone by how his dialogue is worded. Tags have their place, but action ones add more to the story. They let us see what's happening rather than telling us what to see, and they allow for fewer words. They also allow more active tenses instead of passive, which makes the writing stronger and increases pace, as well as maintains tension. The trick with action tags is not to overuse them. So, let’s spice it up with action tags instead. Ready?

"Sooo, what did you do, yesterday, Lance?" Drake wiggled his brows.

Lance doodled on his paper and didn’t look up. "Hung out with my girl."

"That's it, eh? You just hung out?"

Lance resisted a grin. "Yup."

See how much more character that gives to Drake and Lance? Where the dialogue tags killed pace without even giving them much personality, those action tags allow us to character build and paint an image of the boys without slowing the story down. The dialogue tags wasted valuable characharization time, whereas the action beats enhanced the reading experience. And remember the first time I used that example at the start of this? See how much deeper the story and characters are, compared to that bland, flat exchange at the start?

When it comes to actions, the hard part is knowing when and how often. A good rule of thumb is, if action beats do nothing for the story, leave them out. It's also key to avoid using long action tags, as well as too many. Actions should be a separate sentence from the dialogue. This allows for tighter wording and shorter sentences, which gives the whole thing more impact. Longer or attached actions break up the flow and make the dialogue feel choppy, less like a real conversation. If I had used anymore than I did, or if I connected them to the dialogue itself, it would have taken away from the snappy, back and forth feel and ruined the timing, killing the tension and pace.

Which brings us to the next point. Tension. My readers know how big I am on this. It's what keeps readers glued to the page. Part of tension is hold backs, but part of it is adding elements to the exchange that engage us and make us, not just want to know more, but need to know more. The last exchange had tension, but we can make this really pop by adding more. One level of tension is using words that carry more impact. Stronger verbs, shorter sentences, avoiding unnecessary descriptions, and showing, not telling. But tension can be intensified by adding layers to the prose. We do this using two elements, emotion and character or plot arcs. Don’t roll your eyes at seeing the same example yet. It gets better. Watch.

"Sooo, what did you do, yesterday, Lance?" Drake wiggled his brows.

Lance doodled on his paper and didn’t look up. "Hung out with my girl."

Drake snorted. This again  "That's it? With the most popular girl in school, you just hung out."

Lance resisted a grin. "Yup."

Notice that I didn't actually mention an emotion. Drake's doubt is there, his curiosity, his irritation, but I didn't tell you it was there, I didn't say it. It's all in the dialogue and action, and in this case, in Drake's thought, "this again." It's the subtlety that makes the conversation feel as if we are a fly on the wall watching it all happen. From Drake's snort and his thought, we get that Lance does this all the time, and it drives Drake nuts. We can sense his irritation without being told he's irritated, and slowing the story down. Also, our imaginations are really going now. Is Drake the kind of guy who causes trouble when you tell him too much? There's all sorts of ways this can go wrong, and there in lies the tension. Tension is the anticipation of something about to happen. Telling the emotions or having longer tags would take the focus away from the important things, what's being said, and so lose the tension. If you embed the movement of the story and the tension in the dialogue and actions, it keeps the dialogue real and fast-paced.

Now, just for comparison sake, here’s the first use of the exchange, before we made it matter.

"What did you do, yesterday, Lance?"

"Well, I went to the store for mom, washed the car, and then went to my girl friends for a movie."

Drake shrugged. "Cool."

Wow. Look at that, and now look at the last one.

"Sooo, what did you do, yesterday, Lance?" Drake wiggled his brows.

Lance doodled on his paper and didn't look up. "Hung out with my girl."

Drake snorted. This again. "That's it? With the most popular girl in school. You just hung out."

Lance resisted a grin. "Yup."

Huge difference, yes? But, would you believe we can still make this better? How? By employing “zingers.” In Writing the Breakout Novel, Maass describes these as unexpected one-liners that make a character stand out and make the dialogue leap off the page.

Zingers are a little more complex, but think of them as a punch line to a joke. There's build to them, a certain setup and delivery, and timing is extra important here.  Wait too long or not long enough, use one too many words or the wrong ones, and you lose the whole effect. But like a well delivered punch line, zingers rely on an added element. Surprise, or more definitively, a twist.

Now, to employ a really effective zinger, the conversation needs to be a little longer, so as to allow for the proper set up and build.  Watch this.

"Sooo, what did you do, yesterday, Lance?" Drake wiggled his brows.

Lance doodled on his paper and didn't look up. "Hung out with my girl."

Drake snorted. "That's it? You just hung out."

"Yup."

Drake shook his head. "Ugh uh. There had to be more. Tell."

Lance said nothing.

Drake squeezed one eye shut. "So let me get this straight. You went out with the most popular, hottest girl in school, and you, what? Watched paint dry?"

Lance looked at him and a smile twisted his lips. "Oh there was paint. And balls. And a gun."

Zing! That really makes the dialogue and characters come alive. Lance's playful line does several things at once. It shows he has spontinaity and wit, thus adding to his personality and endearing him to us. It adds to the tension of the passage, thus driving us on. And it further hooks us, making us want to know more. Now we can guess what he and his girl were doing. It was probably paint ball, not at all what Drake thought. That’s your twist. The careful wording and the flow of it makes for the effective delivery. But we also want to keep reading to see Drake's reaction. That revs the tension up several notches. Also, what they were doing is as unexpected as the line itself, which acts as its own force, because it elevates Lance's and his girl's relationship to something deeper than what Drake, and thus, we, expect. The layers we added to the dialogue in the previous runs turns what started out as bland, uninteresting dialogue into something engaging and exciting. But Lance's well timed, well worded zinger takes it to another level, enhancing the reading experience even further.

These days, dialogue can’t just be realistic. It has to take us away from the norm, introduce us to interesting people, and keep us riveted in the story. So, first, make your dialogue real. Then, give it something more. Make it stick out in our minds. Make it leap off the page. 

Until next time everyone, write on!

4 comments:

  1. This was fantastic, Raven. You really explained the layers in effective dialogue well and using the same example throughout the entire post was good b/c it really showed how much it changed once you incorporated the tips you gave in it. I'm sure this is going to prove helpful to writers who are struggling with dialogue. :D

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  2. Thanks, Ree. I'm glad it's helpful. And I'm glad it's different enough from the topic on dialogue you had planned, so you can still do yours. That's what I was hoping for. Can't wait to read your post!

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  3. Excellent examples, Raven. I know a few writers that could take lessons from you. You should teach a class. I've seen enough limp lifeless conversations to last me forever. I hate when all the characters sound exactly the same.

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  4. Wow, thanks, Michelle! What a huge compliment. And I know. I'm very easily bored, so elevator chatter drives me nuts. Glad these examples will help others to liven up their dialogue. :D

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