Writing

The Art of Dialogue

Dialogue is easy to imagine and terribly difficult to write. It’s often called the hardest part of writing, and many writers who’ve mastered the other elements in their novels find their dialogue holding the rest of their book back. The difference between good dialogue and not so good dialogue is what separates amateur writers from the pros, so today we’ll take a look at how to make your dialogue seem natural and believable.

“Said” is NOT Dead:

Something that tends to trip writers up hails way back from their grade school days. Well meaning teachers would tell their students that “said is dead” in an effort to get them to find more creative ways to indicate who was speaking. But this was poor advice.

The truth is, in this industry, “said” is king. Because our brains have seen the word so much in life, we tend to skip over it entirely making the dialogue itself stand out. By using other words to indicate the speaker, like “growled”, “snapped”, “whispered” or the most hated of all, words that describe an action not speech related at all like “smiled” (who smiles a word?), our brains pay extra attention, making the dialogue feel watered down and putting the reader very much back into the printed words and less into their imaginative theater of the mind. If a long string of “said”s makes you nervous, insert a few attribution tags in the middle of the line (“I loved it,” she said. “It was a moving song.”) or intersperse them with beats. Sparingly use “said the man” instead of “the man said”.

Also, never attach adverbs after or before said. You want your readers to not just understand the emotion but to feel it, and that’s hard to pull off when you as the writer practically scream it to make sure they understand it. Let the character’s actions show they say something angrily, it gives your reader more credit. Make whether they said it softly or not irrelevant based on their body language (and their wording).  Don’t patronize your audience by literally spelling it all out, and don’t fall back on lazy writing by telling them an emotion outright.

Physical Beats:

If “said” is king, physical beats are the ethereal angels singing. Not only does adding beats between writing break up long strings of dialogue and also show who is speaking, it makes the writing pop with both verbal and physical meaning. It allows the writer to show their character’s feelings in a more profound way than telling their tone of voice ever could.

Your character could mumble their line, or they could run their hand through their hair, letting it fall back over their face like a mask. They could scream the words, or they could slam their hand on the dining room table, making the tableware jingle. They could say their piece nonchalantly or thoughtfully, or they could flick the ash off their cigarette or swirl the last sip of whiskey around the bottom of their glass. They could say something surprised, or the food could drop from their fork and their mouth could hang open.

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Not every line should be a physical beat, however, and they should be used to avoid a noticeably long string of “said” attributions or when the dialogue needs it to explain (which should be rare). Too much and you risk taking your reader’s thought line away from the dialogue itself and exhausting them. Mix beats in with “said” and experiment with how it reads silently and sounds aloud.

The Name Game:

There’s few things worse in dialogue than your characters using each other’s names every time they address them. It gets redundant to have your characters refer to each other by name every single line. Allow your beats or your narration to reveal that if you need to.

Ditto for using other indicators like “sis” or “cousin” or “my dear friend”. Often, it reads as if you’re trying to bash your reader over the head with information you already gave them. They already know your protagonist’s familial relationship with their sister if you’ve told them (and do make sure to, don’t get sloppy and reveal that sort of thing in dialogue exchanges because nobody approaches their siblings and immediately begins with “Hey sis”, they more often either use their name or, more commonly, know the person knows their talking to because they’re looking right at them!)

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Another name note: don’t switch up what the character is called throughout the scene. That means no flipping between “Mrs. Holloway said” and “Mary said” and “Mary Holloway said” and “the teacher said”.  Pick one and stick to it throughout the scene.

Avoidance, Misdirection & Misunderstandings:

Far too often, dialogue seems stilted because we try to make it read as natural despite knowing it’s fiction. We have our characters answer every question directly. But in real life, we rarely speak that way.

Let your characters avoid questions, or answer the unasked question. “Did you know they were dating?” doesn’t have to be answered directly. Allow your character to skirt the question. “I haven’t seen either of them in months” or “I don’t know why it matters, you’ve been dating that guy from the office for weeks now, haven’t you?” Ask a question in response to a question, let your characters dance.

Or let them misunderstand. “Did you get it fixed?” “Yeah, I worked on the car yesterday, got it all lined out. All it was–” “Not the car, Jerry. Did you talk to the bank?”

Allow characters to interrupt each other or change the topic. Mimic real conversation but keep it interesting–you don’t want it so real it becomes a boring small talk scenario where the weather and family are discussed politely and your reader gains nothing from the conversation.

Punctuation:

People tend to carry on conversations in massive run on sentences. Full stops are pretty rare in today’s world. Writing should reflect that in a logical way.

“I don’t see why you would think that. I didn’t find it rude at all. Just honest. Stop being a prude!” This is great and all, but most readers will find it somewhat less than realistic. Let’s try without all of those full stops.

“I don’t see why you would think that, I didn’t find it rude at all, just honest. Stop being a prude!” See how it reads more natural? You can even add the attribution in the middle (“…I didn’t find it rude at all,” she said. “Just honest…”) and dispense with the exclamation point unless you find it absolutely necessary (though the scene itself should let the reader know how worked up she is without the extra explanation).

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Perhaps your character is hesitant to reveal something, trails off, or the reader can only hear one side of the conversation. Use an ellipses (…).

Maybe your character is being cut off mid-sentence. Use the hyphen (–)

How It’s Said:

Just as few people have the exact same lexicon and formality in their speech, so should your characters have the same variation in theirs. What your characters say matters, and so does how they say it.

A first year college kid is more likely to say “That pisses me off” than “I find that rather irritating”. A prim and proper matron will “that was a surprising turn of events” sooner than she’d say “I didn’t see that coming!” Be sure the formality and language matches the character you’ve created, and make the speaking character evident in how they say things.

Takeaway:

The key to amazing dialogue comes down to letting it speak for itself without drowning it in unnecessary explanation and trusting your reader to understand the underlying meaning through the character’s wording, body language, and actions. Never, ever, explain your dialogue. A careful use of beats, well crafted lines and realistic subversions all add up to stellar and believable back-and-forths.

What do you think of dialogue writing? What areas of it do you notice yourself falling back on, and how are you going to improve going forward? Tell us below!

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Writing

POV (And Why It Matters)

Point of view. It seems fairly self-explanatory. As a writer, you only have so many options here, and as long as you pick one and stick with it, you’re fine, right? But as straight-forward as it seems, it’s incredibly easy to misstep and veer your reader in multiple characters’ heads without meaning to. This article delves into how to do it right, and what to avoid.

First Person:

This is the “I” voice. In first person narration, the reader feels as if they’re being spoken to directly to by your POV character (not the writer). The great thing about first person POV is that your audience gets an effortlessly intimate view of your character because they’re in their head.

In order to make this POV work, you need to have a strong, well developed character that is capable of creating an interesting viewpoint for your reader to view the world from. This is a difficult tightrope to traverse, because you must have a character that just interesting enough to not be boring, but not so interesting that your audience feels adrift inside the head of a lunatic (unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for!).

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Where it begins to get hairy is when the story needs information your POV character either can’t know or can’t express out-of-character. They can observe, but everything is seen through the filter of their experience and understanding.

One way to combat this is to have more than one first person POV character. This should be limited by scenes. Don’t head jump from character to character in a single scene; multiple POV characters are generally broken up by chapters, to avoid reader confusion as to whose head their in.

Omniscient:

If first person is the most intimate, omniscient has the most perspective. However, it’s an excellent option when your story has elements your characters won’t know, but the reader needs to see. This gives the reader more of a cinematic view of your story–instead of having the actor’s voice narrating the movie, the reader is simply seeing it unfold and having the benefit of catching elements your characters are unaware of. Think of it as the background music of your story–it can be the upbeat melody of an impending delight or the ominous tone of impending doom.

This POV may be distant, but the perspective is excellent. The danger is telling the story without the benefit of getting a first-hand view of the emotions behind it, so as a writer, you’re expected to describe them well without “telling” your reader what those are.

Third Person:

Third person POV is the middle ground between intimate first person and perspective omniscient. This POV has a wide range of variables and balances between the two, and allows for a myriad of ways the writer can experiment with it. It all comes down to how your narration is worded.

If your narrative exposition focuses on feelings or emotionally rendered sensations, it will evoke an almost first person POV feeling for your reader, but if it focuses on distanced, matter-of-fact descriptions, your writing will have a more omniscient POV feelings.

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Generally, readers feel more of a connection to intimate-styled writing, so as a writer, be sure to invoke those feelings. It leads to a richer reading experience, and from the language you choose to use, you inform your reader of much more than just the “here and now” aspects of your story–you also show the education, history, and culture background of your character. A character may simply see a “black dress” or may see a “fitted chiffon Chanel” and the reader can guess at the history of that character based on the level of details they notice and give importance to from your narration.

However, there is a line to how much intimacy you have to your writing. Typically, readers associate “depth” with “importance”. If you make everything deep, your reader will become disappointed when a character they’ve emotionally invested themselves in has only a minor, relatively unimportant role not central to the story. Thus, having narrative distance can work in your favor to relay information without creating an expectation of importance.

Takeaway:

Your choice of point of view will dictate the direction your novel takes. Make the decision by considering how intimate you want your writing to be and where you want your reader’s focus to sit. Remember that balance is important, regardless of which POV you choose, and write accordingly. Don’t “head jump” or switch POV characters within a scene (always either create a new scene or chapter or insert a linespace to indicate the change so as not to confuse your reader).

What POV are you currently writing in, and would it serve your story better to write it in a different POV? Tell us below!

 

Writing

Creating Deeper Conflicts in Writing

Conflict is not only an integral part of writing a novel, it is the primary part of writing one. Without conflict in your story, you have no plot, your characters are flat, and your writing serves no purpose. But how does a writer go beyond played-out story tropes and create engaging conflict that captures readers? It all comes down to finding differences in values.

Values & Conflict

Most new writers tend to think in terms of polarizing values when trying to create conflict, which is a great way to bleed it out of your story. If your protagonist values the simple life and your antagonist values wealth, naturally they’ll experience a severe clash, as one negates the other. But not all values are so black and white in the real world, and the art of writing is to present a fictional reality that mimics our own in some way.

When plotting (and sub-plotting), give some thought to varying the levels of contrast between values. Recognize that not all of your character’s morals and wants are either strictly “good” or “bad”, but absolutely capable of both being thought of as “honorable” (like love and safety) that can still be in conflict with each other. If your protagonist wants to marry his high school sweetheart but the government arranges marriages for the genetic viability of their offspring which would result in eradicated illness, that poses a wrinkle in each side of the equation. In fact, the closer you can get the reader to sympathizing with BOTH sides, the deeper your conflict writing becomes.

Internal Conflicts

We often think of character vs. character fights when we think of conflict, but truly remarkable writing deals not just with the interpersonal but also with intrapersonal. In fact, the most profound issues our characters can face is within themselves, and often mirrors the external issues they face in some way. This is how they grow, and that is the main journey our character will go on through our writing.

Try to pinpoint what values the character has that can be at odds with another value they have and exploit that imbalance. Perhaps she loves her husband, but he’s lost his job and she is torn by the fact that she also values financial security for herself and her sick child. Maybe he values his relationship with his father who happens to be drowning, but can’t save him because he’s terrified of water. Or maybe a girl values honesty but is sworn to lie to protect her brother.

The key is to take stock of what makes your character tick, find what he thinks is good, take two of those things he thinks are good and make them clash. Poke at his fears, his flaws, his ideals. Make him make a choice between to good things or between two things he doesn’t want, and make his choice in THAT affect not just his own life, but those around him, also.

All 6 Conflict Types

We’ve talked about internal conflicts (man vs. self) and one type of external conflict (man vs. man). We even touched on societal conflicts in our example of love vs government-arranged marriage (man vs. society). Let’s break these, and the other three, down.

Man Vs. Man:

This is likely the most often thought about when considering conflicts. It could be the protagonist vs. a villain archetype, or could present itself as arguing lovers or a parent and child with conflicting opinions and outlooks.

Man Vs. Self:

The internal part of the conflict, which we’ve already discussed. This type is almost always necessary in some form to create depth in your novel, and should be used in conjunction with an external conflict.

Man Vs. Supernatural:

Another external type, this pits your character against the unknown, magic, gods, demons, fate, or anything that “outside” of a naturally occurring foe.

Man Vs. Nature:

Going in the other direction of man vs. the supernatural is man vs. nature. This can include struggles again hurricanes, tornadoes, grass fires, earthquakes, floods, snowstorms, and the like. While not an unknown force, nature is still just as lethal and unpredictable and can add excellent stress to an already overwhelmed character, or used as a primary conflict where your setting is well defined.

Man Vs. Society:

One we briefly looked at was societal conflicts. This generally puts your character at odds with a “societal norm” which makes them an outcast against many. A great example of this is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s character Hester against society in “The Scarlet Letter”.

Man Vs. Technology:

Few stories capture this conflict as well as Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. Man vs. technology doesn’t just entail high powered devices (Shelley hit on what happens when technology advances beyond our control and our hubris clouds our judgement) but it certainly can deal with the influence it has over our lives and where that influence is taking us. Many stories that revolve around this primary conflict use it to dissect AI or nuclear powers gone awry, but it’s truly limited by the writer’s imagination and can be quite powerful.

Takeaway:

A novel is nothing without a conflict, and the best tales told don’t rely on one alone but many, allowing their character to grow through their choices and the resulting realizations. To get the most out of the conflicts present in your story, figure out where the values lie in your characters and the opposing values of those against them, and make them believable.

What conflicts are you creating for your characters and how do their values, and yours, affect your story? Let us know in the comments!