Writing Dialogue

Dialogue is not conversation. It is an artificial construct that gives the impression of spontaneous and realistic speech without the ums and ers and repetition and stuttering and sidetracks into inanity that characterizes normal conversation. Dialogue shows the relationship between characters, and ideally should be so effective that any analysis of the relationship is unnecessary. 

Elizabeth Bowen, a British author, writes: “What are the realistic qualities to be imitated (or faked) in novel dialogue? Spontaneity. Artless or hit-or-miss arrival at words used. Ambiguity (speaker not sure, himself, what he means.) Irrelevance. Allusiveness. Erraticness, unpredictable course. Repercussion. 

“What must novel dialogue, behind mask of these fake rrealistic qualities, really be and do? It must be pointed, intentional, relevant. It must crystallize situation. It must express character. It must advance plot. During dialogue, the characters confront one another. The confrontation is in itself an occasion. Each one of these occasions, throughout the novel, is unique. Since the last confrontation, something has changed, advanced. What is being said is the effect of something that happened; at the same time, what is being said is in itself something happening, which will, in turn, leave its effect.” 

Dialogue also characterizes the speaker; we can tell who a character is by what that character says and how he or she says it. Each character the main character interacts with should bring our a different facet of the character. You generally don’t speak the same way to your boss and your best friend, your mother and your spouse. 

Sometimes when people talk to others, especially when they accuse the other person of doing or behaving in a certain way, they are talking to themselves. So, in effect, what a character says to another or about another reveals the character’s inner thoughts. Like dreams. Didn’t Freud say that all characters in a dream are facets of the dreamer? 

So how do you write good dialogue? 

Make speeches short.
Have speakers cut in on one another.
Answer a question with a question.
Ignore questions, or answer it after another exchange of words.
Instead of a character answering a question directly, have him tell why it was done: “Did you eat the cookie?” “They looked so good.”
Have characters play tug-of-war with words, each trying to get something from the other.
When editing, review every snippet of speech and ask yourself, “Is this the best, the wittiest, the most dramatic thing the character can say?” Dialogue is not life. In life, most of us can’t think of the perfect response until it is way too late. But in writing you can take your time and make each bit of dialogue a jewel. 

A perfect bit of dialogue from the seventh century: 

A foreign conquerors sent the Laconians a message: “If I come to Laconia, not one brick will stand on another.” 

The laconic reply? “If”.

I Do Not Have Writer’s Block

My hero is running from a volcano and has been running from the dang thing for at least three months. I can hear him panting from exhaustion, but I sit at the computer and spend my words writing articles, leaving comments, sending emails. I have no words left to get him out of his predicament.

In the end, that’s why I write. Not for the fulfullment, not because of a compusion, but because the words gang up on me, using all available brain space. The only way to free myself is to let the words out. But the words I’m letting out now have to do with the mechanics of writing, and so my poor hero runs. And runs.

I thought for sure by getting guest bloggers to do my work for me that the words would begin to weigh heavy on my mind, but I wasted those words on other websites. And I used to be such a thrifty sort. 

I did come up with another idea for getting me back on track with my WIP: start another blog, one just to let my hero run free. Maybe I’ll post my research, notes on character, anything that pertains to the WIP. It seems like such a great idea, but here I am, planning to waste more words while not writing my novel.

But it could work. Especially if I can put one of those widgets on the site that shows how much of the book I’ve finished. Could shame me out of my not writer’s block.

Writing to the Extremes

It is not necessarily true that a picture is worth a thousand words. It takes only a few words, if they are the right words, to create vivid portraits. The secret is to choose significant details — details that mean something, that promote the story, that evoke emotion — rather than to write long passages of trivia. By writing to the extremes (the extremities, I mean) we can bring our characters to life in a new way.

In The Blue Nowhere, Jeffery Deaver tells us about Wyatt Gillette, a computer wizard, by focusing our attention on Gillette’s hands. Gillette has thick yellow calluses on the tips of his muscular fingers, and even when Gillette is not at a computer, his fingers move constantly as if typing on an invisible keyboard. I know somewhere in the novel Deaver described Gillette, but did he really need to? Don’t we get a feeling for the character from those two significant details?

By describing a character’s hands, we can describe the character. A man with manicured and buffed fingernails is different from one with grime permanently etched into his cuticles. A woman with bitten fingernails is different from one with dirty, broken nails, and both are different from a woman wearing designer acrylic nails. The color of nail polish a woman chooses tells us about her character. And clear nail polish on a man would tell us about his character.

We can describe hands in many ways: claw-like, thin, scrawny, big-knuckled, blue-veined, plump, fat, chubby, arthritic. Characters can have tattooed hands. They can wear gloves, a simple wedding band, or multiple rings on each finger.

Hands also do things. They wave, point, gesture, touch chins or noses, and each of these gestures and mannerisms tells us about the character.

And don’t forget fingers and toes. What is there to say about toes? Think about a woman who wears severe suits and a severe hairstyle but paints her toenails crimson. That contradiction makes us want to know more about her. Or think about a man with a mincing walk stemming from shoes so small they pinch his toes.

Do you remember to use the extremities in your novels? How do you use them? What ways can you use them, but don’t? Can you think of ways to describe characters by their extremities alone? What gestures or mannerisms can define characters? What gestures or mannerisms can characters use that may be fresh and not trite? (For example, restless feet can denote lying, or a desire to be somewhere else, or boredom.) What other example can you think of (or have already written) where a character’s extremities play a significant role? Is it better for the extremities to match the character or contradict it? Shoes are a significant fact of life; how do shoes figure into your novel?

On Writing: Muddling Through the Middle

Novels generally have a three-part structure: beginnings, middles, and ends.

Beginnings connect the reader to the main character, present the story world, establish tone, introduce the opposition, and compel readers to move on to the middle.

Endings wrap up all the strands of the story, give the outcome of the final conflict, and leave a sense of satisfaction and resonance.

Middles develop the confrontation between the main character and the antagonist, deepen character relationships, keep us caring about the main character, and set up the final conflict.

Middles keep the main character and the antagonist in conflict. If one or the other can simply walk away, there is no reason for the reader (or writer) to muddle through the middle. Duty can be the adhesive keeping them in conflict (a detective needs to solve a case). Moral obligation can be the adhesive (a character exacts revenge or a mother fights to save her child). Physical location can be the adhesive (a blizzard makes it impossible for the characters to leave a place).

Middles have a rhythm of action, reaction, more action, and how these beats are controlled determines the pace of the novel. Lots of action, little reaction gives a breathless pace. Little action, lots of reaction slows the pace.

Middles should have a sense of suspense, a sense of death hanging over the main character (can be physical, psychological, professional, or moral), and a sense of increasing risks and rising stakes.

Here are a few questions to keep in mind as you muddle through the middle of your novel:

What adhesive do you use to keep your characters from being able to walk away?

How do you vary the rhythm of action and reaction to create the pace of your novel?

Does your novel have suspense, some question to be resolved, something that will keep readers paging through the middle?

Do you have a sense of death hanging over your main character?

How do you keep increasing the risks for your character?

How do you keep raising what is at stake for your character?

On Writing: More About Character

Creating characters is one of the challenges and satisfactions of writing. We need to devise lifelike personalities for our story people, and we need to figure out why they act the way they do. Characters’ motivations for their actions are more important than their personality type. That WHY takes the character out of the ordinary.

In Practical Tips For Writing Popular Fiction, Robyn Carr states, “Some of the most common failures in motivating characters or plots occur from the following:

1. Foolish and or spontaneous actions.

2. Arbitrary decisions and/or behavior (making the behavior purposeful instead of arbitrary makes the motivation believable.)

3. Actions prompted by passive needs or emotions.”

We learn much about characters from their actions, but what the character does is not the defining element. Like with personality, the defining element is WHY the character does what he does. Characters can do anything, though they must be psychologically true and consistent. A character who is cowardly but does not hesitant to rescue someone from danger without any reference to fear or a believable reason for the action is not a well-written character.

Characters do change, of course, but the motivation for that change must be shown. Some basic personality traits do not change under ordinary conditions, so if a smart character becomes stupid or slow, he has to suffer some sort of trauma, as in Regarding Henry. Nor can a slow character suddenly become smart without intervention. The movie Phenomenon is a good example of how that can happen.

When it comes to storytelling, character is all. The plot and the character should be so intertwined that we never see them as separate. Character motivation, in many instances, is the plot — what the characters do and why.

In Story Robert McKee writes: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.” And often, in that hidden nature, we find our character’s motivation.

Making a Character Come Alive

Even though I never planned to enter another writing contest, I did. It’s a local one, nothing major, but the concept intrigued me: the first 650 words of a novel. I could have submitted something I’d already started, but I liked the idea of baiting a hook without having to figure out what comes next.

To my surprise, that character in that hook really came alive for me, which is more than the hero in my work-in-progress has done. The character in the contest entry is a bumbler, an artist who barely knows the difference between a brush and a broom, and this disparity between reality and the character’s self-concept has made her real.

According to psychologist Prescott Lecky (1892-1941), people can only be true to themselves. Individuals will behave in a way that is consistent with their self-concept, even if this behavior is unrewarding to them or inconsistent with reality, and people will do anything to preserve this self-concept.

And that is why the hero of my work-in-progress is not coming alive to me: he is not alive to himself. He has no self-concept. A novel is filtered through the senses, emotions, and point of view of a major character. And it is filtered through the character’s concept of himself. For example, a character who sees himself as a loner will not, perhaps, accept a proffered helping hand when needed, where a character who sees himself as part of a community might feel entitled to that same help.

So how does my hero see himself? He identifies more with animals than humans, so he probably sees himself as a lone wolf who is self-sufficient and needs no one. This would fit with his need for freedom, his defining characteristic. It would also explain why, when he meets his mentor, he watches the man leave without any thought of accompanying him, and why, when he meets the crone, he doesn’t recognize the subconscious need for family she raises in him.

I haven’t yet read the finished chapters with this in mind, but there’s a chance I won’t need to make any revisions. It could be that this change — knowing the character’s self-concept — is merely for me, a new way of seeing him, a new way of making him come alive.

And now, because the character in the contest entry is also alive, I have two books that I’m not writing.

On Writing: How To Use a Character Profile

Lately I’ve been coming across many different character-building worksheets, both online and in how-to-write books, but one point most fail to mention is how to use the biographies you create.

Knowing your characters’ families, friends, education, jobs, hobbies, strengths, weaknesses, goals, regrets, fears, desires, needs, might help you define your characters, but the real benefit of character biographies is to help you create the story.

It’s not enough simply to know what your hero believes, for example. If the belief doesn’t add anything important to the development of the story or the development of the hero’s character, it’s hardly worth mentioning. It’s not enough simply to know the hero’s background. If it isn’t important for the reader to know, if nothing is gained by its inclusion, if nothing is lost by its omission, then that, too, is barely worth mentioning.

On the other hand, if your story goes stale halfway through the book, you can mine both the hero’s beliefs and background for additional conflicts.

More than that, though, a well-constructed character biography can tell you what your story is and where it is going.

When you know your hero’s main goal, you will find the beginning of a plot line. When you know what will make the goal’s attainment the most difficult for the hero, you will find the central obstacle in the story. And when you know your hero’s greatest strength, you can figure out how your hero will eventually overcome the obstacle.

By exploiting your character’s greatest fear, you will be able to draw the most depth from your character because, of course, your hero must confront this fear or else you miss the point of your own story.

Through knowing your character’s weaknesses, regrets, needs, desires, vulnerabilities, you will find inner conflicts, subtexts, subplots, and all the bits of drama that pull readers into your world.

As your story progresses, you may find in your hero’s biography untapped wells of strength, previously undisclosed facts that might alter the situation, even characters from the hero’s past who might take unexpected and relevant action.

Most of all, a biography can help keep you focused on your character’s goals. It can help you avoid annoying little inconsistencies such as hazel eyes on page ten and blue or brown on page one hundred and ten. It can help you create a character arc because you will know which traits are static (an intelligent person doesn’t suddenly become stupid for no reason), and you will know which traits can show the character’s growth (perhaps a fear of commitment that becomes a willingness to commit).

But most of all, the biography tells you the story because character is so entwined with plot that it’s impossible to create one without the other.

Click here for a character questionaire to help you create a profile for your character.

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Creating a Character — Part VI

The second half of a book is easy for me to write — I know the characters, their backstories and motivations — but I have trouble with the front part. My poor hero, Chip, has been running from a volcano for the past month while I’ve been trying to figure out who he is, what I need him to be, and what he needs to become.

According to Robert McKee in Story, “The most fascinating characters have a conscious desire and a contradictory unconscious desire. What he believes he wants is the antithesis of what he actually but unwittingly wants. (Although the protagonist is unaware of their subconscious need, the audience senses it, perceiving in them an inner contradiction.)”

After the volcano incident, Chip is going to meet an archetypal crone who was supposed to get him to thinking that now he wants a family (this after I’ve killed off almost everyone in the world and despite his need to be free) but it’s too soon in the book for him to want that. It would change the way he interacts with his mate when he finally meets her, which means it has to be a subconscious desire the old woman invokes in him, which changes my perception of the story, which means my WIP comes to a crashing halt while I rethink Chip’s wants and needs. And there he is, running from the volcano, waiting for me to figure him out so he can move on to the next disaster.

If a character wants something he himself doesn’t know he wants, it brings out different facets of personality than if he does know what he truly wants. The secret is to give character hints for the reader to pick up on without the author (or an authoritative character) explaining it. Much of reading is subconscious. We notice things without realizing we are noticing them.

Robert McKee also wrote: “The revelation of true character in contradiction to characterization (the sum of all observable qualities) is fundamental to all fine storytelling. What seems is not what is. People are not what they appear to be. A hidden nature waits concealed behind the facade of traits.”

If Chip doesn’t know what he truly wants until he gets it, it also will add a different dimension to the theme, which is freedom vs. safety. He first chooses freedom, next he chooses incarceration and saftey, then he chooses the excitement and danger of freedom over the boredom of safety, finally he chooses responsibility, a different facet of freedom.

By giving Chip an inner character in contradiction to his outer one, he should become a richer character which in turn will allow the story to explore all the facets of the theme rather than the rather simplistic one of freedom vs. safety.

Now all I have to do is get the poor guy away from that volcano or else there will be no story.

Creating a Character — Part I

Creating a Character — Part II

Creating a Character — Part III

Creating a Character — Part IV

Creating a Character — Part V

Writing Sex Scenes

In its essence, a sex scene in a novel is no different from any other scene, and the key to writing it is to figure out its objective. If you’re just putting it in there because you think it’s time for some titillation, it will not have the resonance of a motivated scene. (Though in some novels, category romance especially, titillation alone is an acceptable objective.)

There are many other objectives for a sex scene besides titillation: to bring the couple closer together; to show that they want each other even though they can’t tolerate each other; to bring them comfort; to show the maturation of one character (perhaps he couldn’t commit, and now he can); to show the intensity of the relationship; to slow the pace of the book or speed it up; to bring a bit of humor or playfulness to a somber work.

Once you know the objective, you can write a fitting action/reaction sequence. If comfort is the objective, you can show them together at the beginning, close the door during the action, and show them cuddling afterward. If tenderness is the objective, you can show a bit of the action in addition to the before and after. And of course, if their desperation for each other is the objective, you will need to leave the door open during the scene. As with all resonating scenes, when it is over there must be some reaction, some change to the character or the direction of the story. And the objective dictates that reaction. If the scene was about bringing comfort to the characters, we need to know whether they found comfort or failed to find it, and we need to know the characters’ emotional response to the success or failure of that objective. This reaction, in turn will help set up the next scene.

Scenes also help show who the characters are, and where better to do this than when they are at their most vulnerable. The sex scene I wrote that I like best is one where the woman calls out her partner’s name, and he exults to himself, “I’ve still got it!” That defined them and their relationship.

The problem I have with sex scenes is that, in the end, there are only so many different ways of writing them and after a while they begin to seem ho-hum. Finding the objective helps make the scene unique, as does sense description not related to the act. Can they smell the garbage outside the motel window? Is the traffic only a faint hum from her penthouse? How does the office desk feel beneath her back? Each of these bits gives the scene a depth it might not otherwise have.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to have a sex scene in my current work. After devolving (or evolving depending on your point of view) from graphic sex in my first novel to none at all in my fourth, I thought I’d run the gamut. But then I realized I have never done a humorous sex scene, so that’s what I’m going to aim for. Not a bad objective.

Your Mother-in-Law, the Sociopath

Anyone who writes crime fiction, especially novels about a serial killer, is familiar with the sociopathic personality. But not all sociopaths are killers. Some psychologists estimate that there are thirty thousand psychopaths who are not serial killers for every one who is. So who are these non-killing psychopaths? Your neighbor, perhaps, or your mother-in-law. Maybe even the psychologists who came up with the sociopathic profile. Possibly even you.

Abused children who were not born with a sociopathic personality usually grow up to lead normal lives. Sociopaths who were not abused usually grow up to lead normal lives or lives that mimic normalcy. Sociopaths sometimes become killers because of childhood abuse, and sometimes they become killers simply because they want to. (The killer in the Dutch version of The Vanishing was a classic sociopath who killed to see what it would feel like.)

Even if you don’t write crime fiction, familiarity with the sociopathic personality can help you create dynamic characters and even interesting dialogue. For example, sociopaths frequently use contradictory and illogical statements such as “I never touched her, and anyway, she wanted it.”

A sociopath has difficulty connecting to others, though people often like them. They are charming, glib, witty, and use captivating body language. Because of their impulsiveness, need for excitement, poor behavior controls, and lack of responsibility, they can be fun companions, but because they lack empathy, conscience, and remorse, they can never truly connect with anyone.

Other characteristics of the sociopath are shallow emotions, egocentricity, lying for no reason, no need to conform to societal standards, the skill to detect and exploit the weaknesses of others. They are also well satisfied with themselves, never looking back with regret or forward with concern.

One characteristic that keeps a sociopath from being a good fiction hero is that in fiction heroes need to change during the course of the novel, and sociopaths have solid personalities that are extremely resistant to outside influences. But, being the manipulative creatures that they are, they can make us believe they have changed.

Sounds to me like an interesting character. With or without the killing.

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