I recently did a presentation on writing realistic dialogue for my local writers group. I decided to go ahead and post it here in case people who had to miss the meeting wanted a chance to read it. Then I thought you guys might like it, too. And if you end up singing Ten Duel Commandments to yourself for the rest of the day, you’re welcome.
And if you missed part one, it’s here. My apologies for the terrible art. I borrowed my kid’s markers while he was gone. Shoulda waited for him!
Well-written dialogue is an amazing multipurpose tool – it’s a heavy-lifter. It’s the Swiss Army knife in a writer’s toolbox. It can convey character, emotion, and motivation all in a few carefully chosen words. It can also drive the plot. Poorly written dialogue is also a tool – usually a sledgehammer beating against the reader’s head.
It’s no secret that acquiring editors frequently scan for dialogue in submissions. And when it doesn’t work, they often pass on a manuscript without reading further.
I’ll admit that when I was working as an acquisitions editor, I always made a point to see how the author handled dialogue. If it was rife with the dialogue sins we’re about to discuss, the author received a rejection letter. If the dialogue had potential, I’d read more of the story and possibly send a revise and resubmit letter. If the dialogue was solid and engaging, I’d often read the entire submission. The moral of this story is that good dialogue will get you a lot farther.
#3 Thou shalt make a character’s personality apparent in dialogue.
How can you show that in dialogue? Welp, let’s look at Eeyore. His main trait is that he’s pessimistic. When Pooh’s stuck in Rabbit’s hole and asks how long it’ll take to get thin again, Eeyore’s answer isn’t, “Don’t worry about it, Pooh Bear. No time at all.” Instead, it’s the very Eeyore response of, “Days. Months. Years. Who knows.”
Actually, the characters from The Hundred Acre Wood are a great example of dialogue conveying personality. Tigger is super positive and excited all the time and that shows clearly through his speech and actions. Owl is a bit of a pompous blow hard. Kanga is loving and nurturing – even when she tells Tigger to settle himself down, it’s in conveyed in the kindest possible way. Piglet is anxiety-ridden. Rabbit is neurotic. Roo is exuberant and full of wonder. Christopher Robin is pragmatic. All of their dialogue illustrates their personalities.
When you’re working on your current project, you might want to consider making a list of your characters’ dominant traits. None of them have (or should have) just a single personality trait. In fact, your main characters might even have five or six.
Look at Winnie the Pooh. He’s curious, helpful and a bit obsessive, and hedonistic. Also, I’m pretty sure he’s got some ADD going on.
Which traits do you see in your characters? Then as you’re re-reading what you’ve written, see if their dialogue supports their main character traits.
In addition to personality traits, you may also want to think about the characters’ goals, motivations, and conflicts and how you can use dialogue to illustrate those. What do they want? How does their dialogue convey this?
In the previous dialogue examples, we can see through dialogue that Abbi wants Charles to leave her alone. And Charles is putting his wants ahead of Abbi’s.
#4 Thou shalt avoid talk-sposition.
If you watch Game of Thrones, you’re likely familiar with the concept of sexposition. It’s basically when crucial plot and character information is revealed to the audience in the midst of a sex scene. Game of Thrones utilizes this technique regularly.
In written fiction, sexposition has its counterpart in talk-sposition. (I’m not sure if that’s a thing, but it is now.) Talk-sposition is when characters are conveying information (usually backstory) about the plot to each other even though these people already know their own backstories.
Example: “As you know, John, we’ve been married for three years, now, and I even though I’m a successful athlete practicing mixed martial arts, they think I’ll never be good enough for you. You’re the heir to a major pharmaceutical company and your family will never accept me. Not only that, but they hate my Pomeranian rescue puppies, my collection of Precious Moments figurines, and my Hamilton cosplay.”
Now, granted, this may in fact be information the reader needs. Thoooooouuuugh, maybe not all of it. Some of those things may be better off as deep dark secrets. Either way, this information should never be delivered in dialogue and never ever to someone who knows everything the character has just spewed.
If both characters know what’s up with their jobs, their families, and their hobbies, there’s absolutely no reason to trot any of it out to one another in dialogue. It’s unrealistic for characters to converse about their lives in this way. Now, that’s not to say that one or both characters wouldn’t think about the issues that concern them or possibly discuss them with another character who might not know all the background information. And they’d of course discuss things that concern them—just without the mountain of backstory.
Authors are often under the assumption that a reader needs a ridiculous amount of backstory to understand the plot. But that’s not true. You’re better off revealing just enough for the reader to follow and to keep the tension high enough to keep the reader turning the pages. But, however you choose to reveal the backstory, talk-sposition should be avoided at all costs.
That’s it for today. If you’re interested in more of the dialogue commandments, please check back next Tuesday!