Oh Wow, That Just Sounds Awkward
Ah, yes. Dialogue. I don’t know a single writer who hasn’t at one point or another struggled with it. It seems like such a simple thing to do and yet, sometimes, it seems almost impossible. You may be left wondering if you ever understood how to make conversation.
Or, maybe that’s just me. (There’s a strong likelihood that it’s just me).
I’ve repeatedly told my family that my worst nightmare is small talk. Nothing spells out certain soul-death like the notion of talking about the weather in the line at the grocery store.
Fortunately enough, you’re quite unlikely to heavily feature small talk in your manuscript. Perhaps for a line or two. But never more than the preliminary discourse to set the stage. But that means that you have to muscle into the hard conversations – the narrative establishing discussions. Absolutely no pressure!
Using Dialogue as a Tool
It’s no secret that, at some point, you’re going to have to have your characters talk. I suppose you could have them interpretive dance if the mood was right, but it’s quite possible that the meaning would be lost in the fray. Anyway, dialogue is meant to establish a few very important things:
- The relationship between the characters
- The scene
- Push the narrative along
- Breadcrumb (if you’re feeling froggy)
The Relationship Between The Characters
The relationship between the characters tends to be the meat and potatoes of your manuscript. I’ve written about how important character building is, in of itself (you can read more about it in this blog). But those characters aren’t going to be interesting without someone to play against.
Think about some of your favorite shows. Sure, you might be enamored with the roguishly good-looking detective and his witty quips, but would he really be as interesting without his oafish, sometimes denser-than-my-first-attempt-at-sponge-cake partner? Probably not. It’s the dichotomy that makes them intriguing. Juxtaposing different personalities to see how they mesh brings out layers. Nuance. Intrigue.
The dynamics between characters are what will keep the reader engaged.
You’ve already done your due diligence in establishing the scene through the narrative. But that’s from the narrator’s perspective – you can speak with omnipotent knowledge about the peeling wallpaper, the cracks in the desk’s veneer, the flickering light overhead. That only does so much for creating the scene.
Imagine every scene like a set on stage. Those cardboard and plywood props can be painted to perfection, modeled to look so real that you can almost believe they were plucked out of the world and pulled onto the stage. However, if there are no actors to move within that scene, you’re just left staring at something pretty.
Your manuscript should be a moving picture.
The smart-mouthed detective can squint up at the flickering lights and comment on faulty wiring. His oafish partner can mention that the place hasn’t been tended to in a while. They can admit to feeling ill at ease. It’ll tether us, the reader, to that moment. Keep us with them, feeling that same suspense.
Push The Narrative Along
With all stories there is a point A and a point B. Sometimes, C, D, E, F – all the way through the alphabet. You get the point. You can move the story along with the narrative itself, but, as I mentioned before, it’s not going to be as impactful if we’re not observing how the characters are responding to the story’s progression.
Characters can have epiphanies, or arguments that lead from one scene to another. Or they can come up with plans, or worry after a loved one. Giving a voice to those internal sentiments can be the boot to the scene’s posterior to get it in gear and move it ahead.
If you’re feeling spicy, let’s visit a dear friend of mine. Breadcrumbing. This describes the act of leaving little breadcrumbs (or rather, hints) throughout the text that lead to one final, stunning realization. Hence the literal term.
Perhaps your character is alluding to an affair – or knowing something that the others don’t. It doesn’t have to be pointed out or elaborated on. Sometimes, all it takes is leaving a little hint to cause the reader’s mind to race.
How To Make It Flow
Now that we’ve covered the various ways dialogue can be used to move a story along, let’s talk about how to make it flow.
My simplest and easiest advice is to read your dialogue out loud. If it sounds awkward and stilted, it’s going to read that way. If you have a friend, a partner or a somewhat willing hostage, feel free to ask them to read through it with you like they would lines of a play. Sometimes hearing those words from someone else’s lips can reveal how uncomfortable the phrasing sounds.
Beyond that, it’s important to keep up the flow of conversation. One of my biggest pet peeves is when the writer chooses to interrupt the discussion every line to tell me something else about the scene.
“I don’t understand what happened,” Enid said, a cigarette hanging loose between her fingers. She raked a shaking hand through her hair, her wrinkled lips pressed into a bulldog’s pout. The officer across from her shook his head from side to side, his notebook poised on one knee. It bounced endlessly, his agitation worn like a scarlet letter on his lapel. Speculation furrowed his brow, a caterpillar of a mustache above his lip twitching.
“I don’t either. Which is why I’m asking you.” He drew in a breath, his nostrils flared so large, she wondered how many of the galaxies she would find if she just looked deeper. Her tongue found the sharp edge of her canine, her jaw working in defiance. The tea’s steam rose up in plumes, sat abandoned on the weathered and worn dining room table.
“I woke up and he was dead. Is that so hard to believe?”
The problem with writing like this is that it’s’ easy to lose the thread of the conversation. Your reader is ping-ponged from dialogue to narrative and back again. It can make the conversation spread on for an eternity. While that is good for your word count, it’s not good for reader fatigue.
If I were editing this bit of writing, I’d make it look a little bit like this:
Enid held a cigarette loose between her fingers. She raked a shaking hand through her hair, her wrinkled lips pressed into a bulldog’s pout. The officer across from her shook his head from side to side, his notebook poised on one knee. It bounced endlessly, his agitation worn like a scarlet letter on his lapel. Speculation furrowed his brow, a caterpillar of a mustache above his lip twitching.
“I don’t understand what happened,” Enid said.
“I don’t either. Which is why I’m asking you.”
“I woke up and he was dead. Is that so hard to believe?”
He drew in a breath, his nostrils flared so large, she wondered how many of the galaxies she would find if she just looked deeper. Her tongue found the sharp edge of her canine, her jaw working in defiance. The tea’s steam rose up in plumes, sat abandoned on the weathered and worn dining room table.
Often all it takes is a bit of restructuring. I like to look at it as an ACTION SANDWICH. The buns are the important movements and the innards are the conversation.
It’s also important to realize that not a lot of action has to take place during the conversation itself. Don’t over explain reactions or feelings. The first rule of writing (there are at least five hundred ‘first rules’, so this may actually be rule #36 in the grand scheme of things) is to show, not tell. Much like acting. Our job is to create a feeling. Not force it.
If your text reads like a handholding guide to how a reader is meant to feel, it isn’t going to be enjoyable. At times, this will require taking an axe to your text and doing your best 80’s horror flick impression. What has to be done, has to be done!
There is another aspect of writing dialogue that I won’t be covering in this blog. Which is anachronistic speech. This is for all of you historical fiction writers out there who use a lot of, “thy, thee, thou,” etc. But, again, that’s a discussion for a later time, as it requires its own approach in dialogue. Though, everything I talked about here can still be applied!
Writing dialogue is a lot harder than it seems, conceptually. Like with anything else, it requires practice. Just remember that regardless of whether you’re establishing a relationship, setting a scene, moving the story along or breadcrumbing… Read the damn thing aloud.