Speaking of Dialogue…

In my previous post I hinted at a time in your writing when all your characters start to sound the same, but I also said there was a solution for it. Let’s discuss that in this post.

What do you do when your characters lack their own voice? First, recognize the truth: they sound like one another because they sound like you, and you are only one person. However, as I said before, they aren’t you, so they should have their own voice.

Give them distinct personalities and habits. How do they emotionally react to a situation? That will weigh on what they say. Too often we make the characters say something because it’s a common response, but if they just remained silent for that moment, it would speak volumes of their personality.

For instance, recently in my medieval fantasy story, I had a moment where two characters (Conrad and Irene) were talking until they’re interrupted by commotion outside the room. Conrad could have gone out there and demanded, “What is the meaning of this?” but I realized that’s almost a cliché response. I wanted to be different. Instead, I opted for his mere, intimidating presence to silence commotion as he marched up to them. He didn’t need to demand an explanation. It was obvious by his disapproving stare. Yes, that’s not exactly dialogue, but it’s an approach to consider. Maybe in a specific moment, your character doesn’t need to say anything, and that’s what makes him or her unique.

One way to give characters distinct personalities is by borrowing ideas from TV shows or films. Like a character? Study their personality and find out why you like him. Then use those specific elements and apply them to your own character, and sometimes you can blend elements from different characters into one for yourself. For instance, Richard Castle in the TV show ‘Castle’. His ability to come up with wild theories on the fly is kinda cool. Then you have Cal Lightman from ‘Lie To Me’, and his flamboyant way of entering any room—also his ability to read people so thoroughly is remarkable. Put all those traits into one character, and you have something unique. Like Nikita’s determination and fighting streak, but like Carrie’s (from the show ‘Unforgettable’) superb memory and habit of speaking with a southern accent when she’s irritated? Blend it together.

Once characters are given traits unique to themselves, they start speaking, and you have listen. If you listen, you’ll be able to hear their voice.

Now, I will briefly touch upon using dialect and cursing in writing because it applies to dialogue. “Write what you hear,” is the most popular piece of advice regarding dialogue, and this is true. You have the right to write dialogue however you’d like and how your character wants to speak, but beware; if your dialogue is full of slang and cursing, you are automatically limiting your audience. Is that wrong? No. It’s entirely up to you.

When you use dialect in conversations, you take the risk of confusing the readers. If I were to write, “Ah ain’t ‘now no’hin’ that y’all’s talkin’ ‘bout!” It might take a second or two before you translate the sentence as “I don’t know anything that you’re talking about.” The first version might be completely in character and fits right in with a wild west story, but readers aren’t naturally drawn to characters they can’t understand. You can counter this by using body language because that is the universal language:

I don’t know anything that you’re talking about!” Susan shoved Joseph away from holding her back and marched up Sheriff Marcus. Though he towered over her, she jabbed a finger at his chest…

The same idea goes with using cuss words in dialogue. Yes, that’s common language and it’s heard every day everywhere you go and whenever you turn on the radio or the TV. However, keep in mind that writing is a means of communication, and cuss words are simply an empty expression. Yes, they are used for emphasis, but when you look at the skeleton of the sentence, they take up space and are unnecessary. “But my characters curse all the time!” There are ways around it such as simply writing ‘he cursed’—don’t need to go into detail because that only wastes time and space; it is something readers might skip over because they don’t have time for such filthy language. Once a reader begins to skip passages in a book, they will continue to skip until it’s the end of the book, and they’ll walk away with one impression, “Well, that book had a lot of cursing in it.” They won’t remember the story or the character or the plot because the dialogue got in the way.

Am I completely forbidding cursing? By now you should know I don’t make things that easy. Whether or not you include cursing in your writing is entirely up to you, but as always, you must know what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Be aware of each word. If the word is unnecessary, eliminate it.

This much on dialogue then. Next, we will discuss narration—the part of the story where you actually tell rather than show.

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The Key to Dialogue: Listening

Writing dialogue—this is a true struggle for some people. I’ve tried to understand this struggle, and this is what I’ve come to learn.

Dialogue starts by listening—not talking. You need to listen to two things: listen to people around you in every day conversation, and listen to the characters in your head. To do the first part is fairly easy. When there’s conversation around you (could be in real life or in movies and TV), be quiet and listen. Observe people’s mannerisms with their body and with their speech, notice when and how they pause, how interruptions are handled, do they speak the truth or does their body language say one thing while they speak something else? In this way, listen to people.

The second part of listening is a little more complicated. It requires you to take time to yourself and come to several realizations. First: you have people in your head. Second: those people aren’t you. Third: they’re going to talk to you or talk to each other, and fourth and finally: there’s nothing you can do about it.

The most important part of all this is the second point—the characters in your head aren’t you. Yes, they’re in your head. They’re essentially your thoughts, but they are not you! This is one of the hardest aspects of writing that writers must comprehend. “If they’re not me, how do I make them stop acting like me or sounding like me?” One easy solution: have your Main Character (MC) the opposite gender from you. If you’re male, have a female MC. If you’re female, have a male MC. This automatically put a distance between that character and you. Once there is distance, you stop looking at what they say as words out of your mouth. Sure, they might say something stupid—something you wouldn’t say, but they’re not you! What they say is true to themselves, so you need to allow room for that.

Another struggle with dialogue I hear is knowing when to use dialogue and how to transition between narrative and dialogue. The key to this is to listen to the flow of the story. I know that sounds weird, but every word you write must first pass through your mind, and while it’s in your mind, you can imagine how the scene will unfold—like a movie perhaps. Each scene must have a purpose, and when you go into that scene, you need to know what that purpose is. Once you have the setting and characters figured out, all you have left is the dialogue, but there is always a balance between dialogue, action, and narration. Too much plain dialogue, and the reader gets lost. Too much narration and description, and the reader will skip paragraph. If you pay attention to the flow of the story, you will instinctively know when to use dialogue or narration. Here is a snippet from a story of mine. Notice first how I set up the scene, assign each character to their place, and then I start into the conversation:

When he woke, he made no sudden moves. He felt the presence of others in the room, and he wanted to determine who was here before he opened his eyes. At the foot of his bed staring directly at him sat an unmoved individual; Lorrek searched his memories of this place until he found a match: Wordan—king of Nirrorm. However, King Wordan was not alone. Off to Lorrek’s right, further from the bed and closest to the door stood another stubborn figure with a fiery soul—Princess Mordora. Given their last encounter, her presence surprised Lorrek, but he knew he could not feign sleep much longer if he wished to settle issues first in ensure his safety for the time being.

Slowly, Lorrek cracked open his eyes. As he had predicted, King Wordan sat at the foot of his bed—powerful arms folded over his chest and heavy brows furrowed. Wordan was a well-aged man and did not look his many years, but Lorrek knew not to doubt him.

Knowing it best to show reverence to the local sovereign, Lorrek struggled to sit up in order to bow his head, but Wordan lifted a hand—and Lorrek noted Princess Mordora in the corner of the room as he had foreseen as well. Still, Lorrek focused on her father, who heaved a disappointing breath before speaking. “Prince Lorrek, it is good to see the rumors of your death are not true.”

Lorrek’s breath hitched in his chest, but he managed a whisper. “Please do not tell me you informed my brothers.”

And the rest of the scene continues to unfold in conversation.

If your hesitation with dialogue comes from the use of dialogue tags, I’ve already dedicated two posts to that topic. You can find them here:

https://cinemagraphicwriting.wordpress.com/2014/02/15/how-said-is-redundant/

https://cinemagraphicwriting.wordpress.com/2014/02/17/more-on-dialogue-tags/

If your dialogue seems stilted or forced or even juvenile, take the moment to step back and look at your work. Don’t judge it as words on paper. Realize the dialogue pieces are part of your character’s identity. If you’re unhappy with it, stop and talk with the character. Yes, you can hold a conversation with him in your head. Listen to what he tells you, how he speaks, what words he chooses to tell you. It’s commonly said writers are insane, and the main reason for that belief is because they frequently hold conversations with non-existent people. The good news is, as a writer you’re entitled to a bit of insanity. The bad news is, if you’re worried about what people think of you, you won’t embrace your full writer-self, and your characters won’t talk to you if you don’t do that. So, in the end it’s up to you.

The good bit about dialogue—it’s usually The Exception to most rules of writing. Here you can have fragments, run-on sentences, leave out words, revert sentence order, use adverbs, and whatever else your character wants to do. It’s the one place where you’re really truly given freedom to write whatever you want—whatever your character wants to say, so dialogue shouldn’t be burden but rather a freedom.

And again, to summarize: in order to write good dialogue, you must first listen.

More on Dialogue Tags

Last time we discussed dialogue tags, and I recommended you replace tags with body language. “What if I just have dialogue—no tags or anything?”

Wait, we’re supposed to meet with the Smith’s today?”

Yeah. Why? Didn’t you get the message?”

What message?”

You see, dialogue is a tricky creature. Wrapped up in it is the pace of the story. How quickly or slowly a character says something reveals a lot about their personality or their thoughts on certain topics. When something (tag or description) surrounds the dialogue, there is a natural pause. However, when dialogue stands alone, it indicates to a quick passage of time in a conversation between characters. This flow of the conversation would be interrupted if body language was inserted. This is how dialogue tags came into existence because they are considered to be ‘invisible’, and they’re brief enough to only tell the reader who said what then move on.

However, as I’ve said previously, tags have been overused. Not all dialogue should be merely lines as I demonstrated above. Such dialogue should be reserved for rapid conversation, but it can be crafted in such a way to show a scene full of tension. Say you have two characters—both of them at a stalemate, and neither are willing to budge. When they converse, they will fire back responses immediately because they know exactly where they stand. However, for the element of tension, little pauses must be inserted as their own line. Consider the following. For this to work, you need to set the scene similarly to having characters in a room standing across from each other, arms crossed and glaring at one another. As long as neither of them moves, the conversation could go something like this.

If you had only done what I said.”

We would be dead then!”

She tilted her head. “You don’t know that.”

Oh really? I’m fairly certain I remember which direction that car was coming when I pushed you out of the way!”

Maybe that was the plan.”

He glared.

I can’t believe you.”

What has happened with today’s writing is everyone has reverted to using one-line dialogue but tag it with ‘said’ for good measure as not to confuse their readers. Pure dialogue has its place in stories, but that place must rediscovered. Just like dialogue tags, you should use pure dialogue sparingly. This forces you to listen to the pace of the conversation and therefore the pace of the story.

“Okay, say I won’t use ‘said’ or ‘asked’, but what if I use tags like ‘begged’, ‘bragged’, ‘cried’, ‘promised’, ‘scolded’, or ‘requested’? Doesn’t that show more?” No—it doesn’t. It’s repetitive. Let me show you:

Example 1: “Please, don’t leave!” she begged him reaching for his hand to stop him from leaving.

Revised: “Please, don’t leave!” She snatched his hand to keep him from leaving.

‘Please’ indicates the plea, and the exclamation point stresses the urgency. Why use a dialogue tag when you can show it using vivid verbs? Here’s another example.

Example 2: “Oh, please, we all know who got the best sharpshooter marks back in the academy,” Joseph bragged as he cocked his sniper rifle then lifted it to rest it against his shoulder. “And it wasn’t you,” he told her.

Revised: “Oh please, we all know who got the best sharpshooter marks back in the academy.” Joseph cocked his sniper rifle then lifted it to rest it against his shoulder. He gave her a smug smile. “And it wasn’t you.”

When you use tags such as ‘bragging’ and ‘begging’, you label the character. To the readers’ eyes and subconscious, that character is proud and boastful because you said he is. There is little room for redemption or surprise in the character because they’ve been stereotyped. However, if you don’t place a label on them, they’re more flexible and fluid. They can surprise you and the reader. That moment of pride or weakness may have been just that—a moment. The character had his reasons for acting that way at that time, and those reasons are for the readers to discover later.

Now, on the topic of using tags such as ‘cried’, ‘whispered’, ‘grunted’, ‘sputtered’, ‘grumbled’—because these are closely tied to body language, they should not be banned altogether. Yet, like everything I’ve been saying, they should be used sparingly. If you set the scene right, and you have two characters sneaking around hoping not to get caught, when they talk, we already know they’ll be whispering. No need to tell us—show us with body language, and maybe even have one character hush the other and tell him to lower his voice. However, if you have a scene out in the open where two characters are talking normally, but suddenly one leans in and whispers, “Whatever you do, don’t look behind you,” that is acceptable because it was unexpected, and the next several lines will likely not be whispered but continued as usual.

So you see, it is fundamental to understand the pacing of your story as well as the environment of the scene. Try to do without tags but rather use body language, and you might surprise yourself.

How ‘Said’ is Redundant

Professors, authors, and editors say tagging dialogue with ‘said’ is all right because it is an invisible word. Dialogue tags merely there to tell you who said what. That may be true, but that has not been my experience. Instead of being invisible to me, any dialogue tag is a massive billboard screaming at me and yanking me out of the story.

The reason is this: a dialogue tag tells you who said what. Notice, I said, “It tells you who said what”—doesn’t show

Let’s break down a piece of dialogue and dissect it:

Let’s go to the store, John,” Anna said.

Said’ implies someone verbally spoke, but did you know having the dialogue tag is redundant? The quotation marks show me the same thing. So we don’t need to know something was said—we already see that.

As for who said it, ‘Anna said’ tells us Anna did, but what does it show you about Anna? What does it show you about her character? What is she doing right now? Where is she? You might think she’s at the front door in her family’s house with keys in hand and ready to go to Wal-Mart to pick up milk—impatient, average, young American woman. What if I told you Anna and John were actually assassins, and the ‘store’ she’s talking about is a weapons shop in town, and she’s going to pick up more ammo before heading out on a job? That paints a completely different picture, doesn’t it? She might be Russian now, and her real name could be Anastasia.

How could you write that same sentence and hint at her real meaning? Here’s a suggestion:

Let’s go to the store, John.” Anna tossed him the keys, which he caught with practiced ease. She remembered he insisted her Russian driving habits would kill them sooner than any bullet, and on this rainy day Anna didn’t want to tempt fate. She wanted to go to the shop, pick up more ammo, then set out on the job.

Sure, it’s longer, but it also shows you more about both characters.

Not every conversation can afford to have lengthy sentences attached to it. Some conversations are short, choppy, and fast. If it’s between only two characters, stick with facial expressions:

You’re late.” John frowned.

Anna arched a brow. “Car trouble.”

Flat tire?”

Hijacking.”

John’s eyes darkened, but Anna smiled.

So what if there are three or more characters in a conversation? Then what?” Good question. If the conversation is natural and not quick-paced, the first option I demonstrated for you works with any number of characters. However, if the scene is an argument, and it is crucial for readers to understand whose opinion is whose, but nobody physically moves in the scene, this is the only time ‘said’ or any dialogue tag should be used. Consider the following:

You have two options.” John placed his palms on the interrogation table and leaned toward their suspect. “Tell us—”

Why should I believe you?”

Because you’ll die otherwise,” Anna said—not moving from her position against the wall with arms crossed.

What about when there is supposed to be a pause in a sentence? Dialogue tags help with the pause.” That’s true, but before you rely on a tag, talk with your character to see if he physically does anything.

Well, you see,” said John, “that’s not going to happen.”

Well, you see…” A smile tugged at the corner of John’s lips. “That’s not going to happen.”

These little moments can be an eye-opener into the character.

Go back through your writing and see what tags you use. Try to take out the tags and replace them with body language. This gives your character a chance to stretch and grow. Of course, there is a need for balance. You don’t want to overuse the same body gesture. Sometimes a tag is best for that moment, but it should be your last resort. Consider investing in a book about body language because there is so much the body says without speaking.

Are dialogue tags absolutely forbidden? No, but we have an overabundant dependency on them. Much like helping verbs from the previous post, we should limit dialogue tags in our writing in order to grow in creativity and craft our writing voice. Once you’ve discovered how to work without dialogue tags, when you absolutely need a tag, you can use it.

One final note: please avoid using ‘ask’ or ‘question’ or even ‘exclaim’. Questions marks (?) and exclamation points (!) exist for a reason. If a sentence inside quotation marks end with one of these, it is repetitive to tag the dialogue as ‘asking’ or ‘exclaiming’.