DIALOGUE, The Tension Engine Of Fiction, Yet… Is It How We Talk?
Dialogue, a nemesis. When I turned to fiction after decades of nonfiction writing, I bumped up against making up speech. What came readily as a nonfiction writer—putting words on paper that people actually said—seemed improbably stilted when I made them up and slapped them into fictional characters’ mouths.
I had to learn the difference between real speech and dialogue talk. Dialogue is more truncated. Usually, it’s missing some speech stallers such as “uh…mmm…gee…” etc. Often, dialogue may step on the lines of another character, something in nonfiction we avoid. It’s called interruption. And yet, this may be the best example of yes, “write like you talk.” Because…don’t we often interrupt each other when we’re animated in a conversation? When we’re thinking two steps ahead of the other person? Or, at least think we are?
Interrupt. It’s OK.
Well, then, apply that to dialogue. Interrupt when excited or when your character thinks they know more than the other person. That’s real life and here’s a great chance to “show” the reader a mirror to real life.
Sometimes dialogue is an argument. But we can’t have story characters arguing incessantly. It’s got to fit the scene. Dialogue being action, then it’s a vital ingredient of scene building. Dialogue, when well written, helps the reader “suspend disbelief,” a goal of the fiction writer that nonfiction writers don’t have to address because if it’s true, it’s real.
So, when I say “well-written dialogue,” do I mean grammatical purity? Well-constructed sentences?
Real speech doesn’t do that. Listen to people talk. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, learn to listen. One of my first mentors in fiction taught me that. Go to a café, a burger joint, a bar, a 4-star restaurant. Usually alone to listen. Listen to what people say; watch what gestures they use, what facial expressions they make.
FORGOT TO MENTION: I’ll teach a class at SMU (www.smu.edu/creativewriting) for short story, essay and article writing along with tips on publishing these. Class is titled “Write Now!” You can concentrate on one or all of these forms. Good kickoff for building your writing and author “platform” we hear so much about. STARTS MARCH 21, 6 pm.
PEOPLE WATCHING…A GREAT HABIT
Many of us are people watchers so this just falls in that category.
Even before writing fiction, I’d notice people in a public place—their physical expressions, gestures, animation or lack of, the way they walked, the way they talked–even on the beach during Spring Break. And I’d fantasize about them: Are they happy? Sad? Who’s joyous? Who just had a fight with a Loved One, Boss, Child? Or, who seems bored and detached from the people they’re with, or shy and unassuming? And then isn’t it fun to make up scenarios that have created these visible expressions.
That’s not too far off what we as fiction writers do. Except, we’ve made up the characters who are doing and saying these things.
And while we have them talking, let’s remember to avoid grammatical correctness except with a precise and formal character, meaning word forms like contractions that most of us use regularly. Let’s let the characters speak in sentence fragments rather than complete sentences. Sprinkle regional or generational or ethnic expressions—not dialect–appropriate for the particular character.
A DIALOGUE DRUM ROLL = TENSION
And, when we’re building toward a high tension moment especially, keep the words and phrases short, clipped and of course incomplete—two word, one word, three word utterances. That’s the print writers drum roll building suspense.
Not only words comprise dialogue. It’s those facial expressions—a smirk, a grin, a grimace, a frown, etc.—communicate the emotion of the exchange. So do gestures—a stabbing finger, a fist, a nervous twitch, fiddling with glasses, pencils, papers, keys, a shoulder shrug. And then, so do larger actions, more intense emotions—a door slam, a guffaw, a well-placed kick of a tire.
Okay, so those are some of the tricks to create almost complete dialogue, with two of its three elements–action (gestures, expressions, small actions). But there’s one more.
Driving much dialogue is a character’s thoughts, the third leg of dialogue. To be able to do this, then we must know the character well, to know what they will think, to know what triggers various emotions they will be expressing in speech, thought and action. As writers, we need to crawl into the heads of our characters and feel their feelings, their reactions, to know what decisions they will make for that’s what builds plot.
Take a look at earlier posts for building characters: “Particularities Ramp up Reader Appeal,” Sept. 2 2015; “13 Questions to Ask and Answer to Create Compelling Story Characters,” July 29 2015; “How Different Are Your Characters?” July 15 2015; “How to Build a Bible..a ‘Character Bible'” Jan. 28 2015. All on www.scribblers.tips.
Successful at this then we’ll be writing distinguishing dialogue for each of our characters. No two characters will sound alike if we’re conscientious about this by remembering that while some of us in real life speak little though may say profound thoughts, that some of us speak a lot but say a little, and the long continuum in between. So, pattern of speech is another way to identify a character.
Watch Real People in Real Places…And Listen
So, we return to listening and watching real people to learn what might fit our fictional characters, to make them unique, to give them a definite sound, to let them express and show emotion.
At Northeast Texas Writers Conference where I spoke on dialogue among other topics such as point of view.
Writing dialogue is fun. As a former speech writer I used to “hear” (in my mind) the exec I wrote for giving the speech. Then when I read it aloud, I’d know whether I’d pegged the person’s expressiveness, or not, and then need to re-do or simply polish and present to him or, in one case, her.
That’s the same today with fictional characters. I hear their voices, see their gestures, actions and facial expressions while I write. Then let the scene rest for a few days and then read aloud to myself.
READ ALOUD WRITTEN DIALOGUE. HOW DOES IT SOUND? AS INTENDED?
That’s a good test for whether or not I’ve captured the sound, the emotion, the intent and the content of the dialogue and that it’s realistic for the character being portrayed. AND, remember, visit a public place that your character might hang out in and watch and listen!
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