So, without this turning into a preachy writer’s guide, I’d like to every now and then take the liberty to give aspiring writers out there some wisdom I’ve picked up from the incredibly good writing teachers I’ve had over the years and, of course, my extensive history of failure at writing. I’ve hit the craft hard enough, and for long enough, to learn each of these lessons the hard way, so I feel like I’m paying it forward a bit by trying to ensure you don’t spend so long doing the same. Consistently, I see young (and I mean, new to the craft) writers making the same mistakes I made across my first few novels, and without being able to step outside the work consistently enough (through rejection, informed readership and the academic study of writing) they never know what they’re doing wrong. Today I’m going to talk a little about dialogue, because half of what we use to build our reader’s conception of our characters is through what they say to each other, and bad dialogue in an otherwise well-constructed scene puts a shotgun to the head of your work.
Your job, as a writer, is to make the reader forget that they’re reading.
This isn’t my insight, it’s a consistent theory across academic studies of the craft. Stephen King likes to call the act of writing self-hypnosis, and the output of this hypnosis has to have the same effect on the reader: they have to feel ‘in’ the scene, believing it as reality. Of course, we all know it’s not reality, particularly when you’re a sci-fi writer and you have constructed completely new realities far removed from our own, but reading, the act of reading, is the adoption of a new, false reality for extended moments as you read. It’s like magic, a trance, a spell you take the reader under, and something as simple as a misplaced word, a word they don’t understand, or a sentence they have to read a couple of times over can break this spell and shock them back into the real world.
Too much of that will inspire that very common sentiment that: ‘I tried reading it, but I just couldn’t get into it.’
As soon as the spell of good writing is broken, the reader will look up from the page and remember where they are and what they’re doing, and they will put your book down to go finish the washing or turn on Dr Phil or make that call to their mother they were supposed to make. When you disappear into a book for days, it’s because the spell was effective. So that’s your mission; get the spell right.
Bad dialogue comes in many forms, so I’m going to cover a few common errors. Really poor dialogue makes your characters unbelievable, not convincing of the reality you’re trying to construct, and at it’s worst it can make your characters seem contrived, stereotypical or generally wooden. So, here goes:
Screamers and grunters
Something I see often is deeply gendered writing, where writers writing the opposite sex will over-think how they express themselves and turn them into stereotypical ultra-masculine or ultra-feminine talkers. The women end up peppered with exclamation marks and the men grunt, snarl, growl or otherwise murmur everything, because we all know that men don’t express themselves well and women are always consumed with hilarity and emotion, right? Wrong. My general rule on exclamation marks is that you should limit yourself to one every ten thousand words. Whatever your character is saying should be worded in such a fashion that it is obvious that they’re exclaiming. The circumstances should call for it. And that goes for the way we frame the dialogue, as well. If you’ve given in and used an exclamation mark, there’s no need the to make it clear your character was shouting by adding ‘she shouted’.
‘Don’t touch that!’ Monica wailed.
Speech direction in general, I believe, should be kept to a minimum, because unless it’s unclear who is speaking, your reader will take care of the assignment of character voices in their head to the words on the page. You can establish that two characters are speaking to each other in turns, and then let the speech direction disappear.
‘Where are we going?’ Eden asked.
‘I don’t know,’ he answered.
‘We have to stop soon. It’s getting dark.’
‘It’s not safe yet.’
‘We have to stop.’
‘I don’t want to do this anymore. We should give up. We should-‘
‘We’re not giving up.’
The tension in these voices is clear from the circumstances. Obviously they’re going somewhere, chased by something, and she’s feeling a tad hopeless about their chances of getting away. He, whoever he is, is determined to keep running. He could have grunted that no. But no is all he said, and the word itself is short, sharp, and all-inclusive. She could have wailed or pleaded those ‘we have’s and ‘we should’s, but her repetition of these phrase-starters, her general sentiment that they need to give up, indicates her distressed tone anyway. Get it?
Gestures and speech
It’s ok to pair gestures with your speech, but be careful not to snap your reader out of the spell by convincing them that they’re watching some strange, twitchy ventriloquism act between people who can only speak while demonstrating their emotion physically. It comes off contrived, and a little 50s British comedy, (which prided itself on being so contrived). I read the below in a romance manuscript and nearly gagged.
Jane’s friends leaned in intently as she spoke, watching her face.
‘I told him, I said: David, you pack your things this minute and go! And I never saw him again,’ she sighed, twirling her half-empty champagne glass.
‘I can’t believe you did that!’ Nicole gasped, slicing her chicken.
‘Neither can I!’ Sam snickered, lifting an eyebrow at the waiter to order another round of drinks.
The thing is, a bunch of girls sitting around a table at a restaurant in the reader’s mind will generally do the things you’re telling your reader they’re doing without you having to spell it out. No one is imagining that these girls are sitting there in their chairs like puppets with their strings cut while Monica speaks: they’ll be eating, playing with their forks, looking for the waiter, leaning intently or picking their teeth with their fingernails, depending on the kind of women you’ve set them up to be. Cut the exclamation marks, too. Generally when people say they can’t believe something, they’re not saying it half-heartedly.
People have speech habits. As a writer, your job is to listen out for them, because you’re supposed to be a worldly, observant, meticulous student of life: your kind have taken pride in being that way for centuries, and the best writing comes from being that way. I have a couple of speech ticks, and endearingly my mother has exactly the same ones. Sometimes they can become a real bother for people. Either way, they’re something I’ve always done and they’re uniquely me. For example, if I have news I start my sentence with ‘Guess what?’ I don’t actually want my listener to guess. The phrase is a function that says ‘Are you listening? I have news.’ I’ll probably do it five or six times a day.
‘She didn’t show up.’
‘Christ. How’d they take that?’
I also say ‘Look,’ a lot. ‘Look, here’s the thing: your writing sucks.’ ‘Look, I need you to hand this in by Monday.’ ‘Look, get over here.’ The word says ‘I’m serious’, without me needing to say ‘I’m serious about this, pal.’ It sets the tone for the rest of the sentence. Over-use of it can kill your writing. Not everyone does it, so not everyone in your book should adopt the same speech habits.
Speech habits can indicate things about your character that you would otherwise would look contrived in saying. You can indicate someone’s education level, lifestyle, values, attitude in a situation by the slang they use or how long their sentences are.
‘Back to Centrelink for you then, mate.’
‘Back to Centrelink it is, mate.’
That’s another speech habit of mine, cutting off the first half of my sentence. Instead of ‘I’m going back to work,’ I will often just say ‘Back to work.’ If I’m telling someone about something I saw online, I’ll say ‘Saw this great video on Facebook,’ rather than ‘I saw this great video on Facebook.’
So there are four points you might like to think about on your quest for the perfect dialogue in your writing. In general, when I’m editing my work, I go back and cut down the dialogue by half, because I think that often we work out what our character is going to say as they say it, and when you’ve left those sentences sitting there long, over-worded and drawn out as your character comes around to what they’re trying to say, if the situation was genuine they’d have used half the amount of words. Hope this helps. Happy writing!