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

Creating Believable Worlds Through Setting and World-Building: 6 Things To Include

Writers across the board know that great fiction is character driven. But something most writers don’t know is that amazing fiction treats setting like a character. Your world building is just as important as your character development because it literally sets the scene for everything that transpires in your story. For some of your stories, the setting will be a factual place or a place that could be factual. For others, the setting is going to be wholly made up and fictional, with it’s own “rules” and feel.

They key to doing this is to be clear about how much your readers can intuit, and making everything else vivid enough to place them there. Here’s how you do that.

 

Macro-locations

This will likely be the overarching and least specific part of your novel’s setting. If you think of your novel as scenes revolving in different rooms of a house, the house itself is your macro-location. So if your story is about a suburban kid, your macro-location would be the country he’s living in (and gives your reader a general sense of the culture in which he resides, as France has differences from the USA which has differences from the Phillipines). If your novel takes place on a different planet or completely fictional world, that’s your macro. Factual places have predetermined and universal cultural nuances, but for fictional places, you as the writer should spend time thinking about what those nuances are and how to incorporate them into the story without telling the readers outright what they are.

 

Micro-locations

In the story-as-a-house analogy, your micro-locations would be the rooms. These are more vividly drawn and specific. A micro might be your character’s house. Your reader should be able to imagine it by the way you describe it; what color are the curtains? Does it feel like just a house, or like a home? Does it smell like fresh baked cookies or like mildew and neglect? Readers should be able to glean a lot from how your character feels about and reacts to your micro-locations, and a great deal can be foreshadowed by the state of them if you, as a writer, do your job utilizing them in contrasting and comparative ways.

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Demographics

It’s insightful for readers to have a backboard for where your tale takes place. Is it all human? Is there a racial majority, and how does your character fit into that (or not)? Are there aliens or other sentient species? What sort of tension exists between the different demographical sectors and how does it relate back to your characters? Everything from the predominant financial state to education level will be relevant and can be introduced subtly through descriptors like the general look and upkeep of the neighborhood or how your characters and the supporting cast speaks.

Culture

We touched on this in the macro-location section, but the cultural norms in your setting paint a colorful picture of not just how your character fits into their world, but also the world itself around them. Stories that feature magic or non-factual elements will spend a lot of time on this and should take into account how these elements work (readers typically like to know there is some rhyme or reason for why and how things work the way they do and what rules they adhere to). But the culture itself in any story is important. Is it culturally acceptable in your setting for people to dispose of trash in the street, or to recycle? To watch TV all day or spend most of their time at work? To value children or their careers? Create a vivid landscape and activities and landmarks that your characters would easily recognize to anchor the story in that location.

Contrasts in Locations

Because stories should move your character along a path to change, your locations should provide ample contrast to move him or her throughout the story. Not every micro-location should be safe and cozy. Let your world move throughout a range of locations and settings to provide danger or unease. It aids in character progression as they encounter very different locales that push their comfort and incites their fear/pain reactions.

Having contrast allows you to reveal your characters’, well, characters. Are they the type to run from danger? Are they the type to pull together closer with a loved one in an unknown location for safety or protection, or push away from each other in the comfort of the familiar?

Experiment with differing locations. Counter a nature setting with a cityscape. A dark, sinister place with a comforting, playful one. Give your story dimension and space for your characters to move in and explore.

Just as you can’t have all of your characters act the same way or have the exact same personalities, don’t let your settings all evoke the same emotions.

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The Details, Large and Small

A common misstep made my new writers is to create a detailed world in which only the overarching details are evident. Dystopian writers may focus heavily on the disparity of their world and reveal the catastrophic government influences it wreaks upon the poor citizens it rules, but your reader won’t be able to connect with that. Give them finer details, too. In the climate of that dystopian world, what are the personally experiencing? Their clothing, their food, their neighborhood in that dystopian state or country. The things your characters personally feel and see and hear and touch provides a personal entry into that world and gives meaning to the overall details you create. Make sure you have both large scale details about the world and small scale details that expand on them throughout your story.

Takeaway:

Your setting is an integral but often overlooked part of your novel that deserves attention to really make the story pop.

What part of setting development do you find makes the most impact in your favorite novels? Let us know in the comments!

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