Writing Snappy Dialogue

Last weekend I attended Arisia, a scifi/fantasy con in Boston, and was on a panel about writing dialogue. In addition to the wonderful discussion we had, and some great questions from the audience, the other panelists and I prepared a handout for attendees that we wanted to share at large.

Here it is! And if it’s helpful, here is a downloadable PDF: WritingSnappyDialogue-Handout.


“He Said, She Said: Writing Snappy Dialogue”

Arisia 2017 – with N.S. Dolkart (moderator), Andrea Corbin, Sarah Smith, Alexander Feinman, Kate Kaynak

Dialogue is drama.

Characters’ dialogue characteristics can/should conflict with each other, just the way their ideas and emotions and opinions do. Characters should be as different in speech as they are in action. And sometimes those differing ways of communicating will cause conflict.

Let characters not listen to each other.

In real life, people often don’t reply to each other’s bits of dialogue; instead they go off on their own tangents. They might have their own agenda or inner conflict they keep worrying at instead of listening — or they may be distracted by action. The techy term for this is “talk past each other.”

  “It’s all about people talking about their own thing, talking past each other. The concept has a long literary history; see, for instance, the dialogue between Thrysymachus and Socrates in The Republic. The Chinese expression is a chicken talking to a duck.
  “Dude, have you seen my glasses?”
  “Listen to me.  I’m talking about dialogue. Which is art. You can listen without your glasses.”
   “Because seriously, man, I think the dog ate my glasses. He’s making these funny crunching sounds and coughing and stuff.”
  “My mother never paid any attention to me. No one pays  attention to me. I might as well not have a doctorate. What are you doing with your fingers down that beast’s throat?”
  “Can you get me like a couple chopsticks? Fast?”

Steal from life.

Write down things you hear around you. One good sentence can create a whole character. Listen to people! Listening to the way real people use language can shed light on different characters you may want to write.

Do your research.

Making up slang or phrasing for people who exist, now or in our past, will fall flat, and can be downright offensive. (This has different considerations in settings removed from our reality, such as secondary world fantasy characters, or distant-future scifi.)

Read your dialogue out loud, tags and all.

It’ll help you figure out where tags are needed to indicate the speaker, where they might be redundant, and of course, where your words might just sound clunky.

Note: the way you read your dialogue isn’t necessarily the way other people will read it. If you find you have to stress particular words to get the point across, and saying it “wrong” would break the meaning, the sentence probably needs a rewrite.

Leapfrog the obvious.

Not every greeting and comment needs to be on the page. You might need to write every line in a first draft, but don’t be afraid to cut the chaff and leave only dialog that moves the plot or illuminates character.

Tips and tricks to differentiate characters

  • Pay attention to sentence length and structure. This can and should be varied from character to character. Think of long run-on sentences versus pithy one-liners or fragments.
  • Different people’s voices have different rhythms. Using distinctive rhythms — think of meter and foot in poetry — helps differentiate voices.
  • What slang would a character use? What localism or colloquialism might they employ that another character never would? Listen to real people who use slang to get it right.
  • Most people don’t speak in full, grammatically correct sentences. How does your character break the rules? Do they break with modern conventions to sound historical, or the opposite?
  • Imitate style: Similar to accents is finding a piece of writing that implies a character and imitating it; this works particularly well with historical characters.  One of us based a fussy bachelor character who liked children on Lewis Carroll’s preface to Sylvie and Bruno. Mark Gatiss is a notable Victorian imitator (he’s written Victorian porn, the dear man) and did something  similar for Mycroft Holmes.

Narrative can be speech.

Certain points of view stay in the mind of a single character. If you use first person or third person limited POV, remember that everything seen directly from a character’s POV is “dialogue” and should follow this advice, too.

Things not to do

  • Overuse adverbs, AKA the infamous “Tom Swift.”  “‘I’m falling!’ shouted Tom swiftly.” Carefully-deployed adverbs can work, but improving dialogue or the narrative around it is more effective and subtle. You can write attitude better than you can describe it.
  • Accents. It can be really fun now and then to experiment with writing everybody in different accents (even Ze ‘Orrible Cliched Fransh Accent), just to see how far you can differentiate characters. It might even be useful in a first draft, to help you get into the rhythm of different characters’ voices. But be aware that this will also put a lot of readers off, obscure the content of the dialogue, and is extremely difficult to do sensitively. If you think you’ve done it inoffensively, you’re probably wrong. Strip it out before you try submitting it anywhere. Even in historical fiction, never, never, never use outdated cliches of accents or dialect that denigrate people.

Resource links

The POC Guide to Writing Dialect In Fiction (Tor.com)
The 7 Tools of Dialogue (Writer’s Digest)
9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue (The Creative Penn)
How to write dialogue and The challenge of writing good dialogue (John August, screenwriter)

 

Update on that no-media experiment

Things I successfully avoided in my experiment: Fiction. Surprisingly, that was the easiest thing to do. Mostly because there is such interesting nonfiction in the world! Podcasts were easy to avoid, too (with one exception that I knew I couldn’t quit. PCHH, I love you too, too dearly.)

Otherwise, I cheated a whole heck of a lot. I did occasionally still watch things, but I tried to keep it as a reward at the end of a week, or documentaries. I found myself replacing my TV-downtime with games, which I honestly hadn’t thought about. I replayed most of The Talos Principle, which was not the best use of my time, but oh well.

(Sidenote: Seriously, if you haven’t played The Talos Principle, maybe you should?? And then we can talk about it??? It’s about consciousness and puzzles and what it is to be a person and free will and lasers and a storm-engulfed tower and robots, so I don’t know how there isn’t something for everyone in there.)

And then I played through Botanicula and was this close to replaying Samorost and the Submachine games…

So instead, since it’s been about a month, I’m taking a moment to look back on the experiment.

Among other small accomplishments, I did write messy drafts of two new stories, and I got two of the three workshop stories out on submission. That’s not bad. I’m not really attempting to write poetry so much as literally playing with it — I took some paragraphs of stories I’ve written, and pages out of books I was reading, and I cut them into their component parts (copies! don’t worry) and have, occasionally, while listening to music, been reassembling them into poems. And realizing that magnetic poetry is a form of dada cut-up, and yet somehow misses the spirit of the game entirely.

As September creeps into view, I’m going to shift the experiment a little. After a month, I was craving some fiction. So I picked up The Sundial and am reading it, nice and slow.

As for TV: does anyone have some willpower they could loan me?

Complete do-over: On rewriting, maybe

Let’s be honest: Anything anyone’s ever told you about writing? There’s like a 60% chance it’s completely wrong for the project you’re working on. So don’t mind me as I waffle endlessly about how to do things.

My current “am i doing it right is this okay or have i gone round the bend” thing is this novel I’m working on. And have been, for quite some time now. I spent months last year doing a serious edit, and this spring was finally able to get some writing friends to critique the draft. I received such great, thoughtful, engaged, and excited feedback that I was freshly pumped about a story I was feeling run down on.

The next day, I was accepted into a short story workshop. After some frantic note-organizing, I completely switched gears to short stories for about two months.

Yesterday I returned to the novel and all the notes I had made. And I thought “I should rewrite this entirely.”

In various drafts, I had already made some rounds of serious structural edits, so I felt like I knew what I was comparing. I knew what it meant to look at the draft and my notes and prep another revision. I knew how much I would want to cling to what was already there. And I knew what I really wanted this novel to feel like, the energy I wanted it to have, the plotlines I wanted to focus on…

And some part of me said, “I should rewrite this entirely.”

It’s a lot of work. My god, it’s a lot of work. Because that fresh draft, while backed by years of thinking about this story and working out kinks in character, plot, and world-building, will take X weeks to write, will need a new round of edits, will want a new round of early readers (if they’ll indulge me).

But today I’m looking at my notes on a potential new outline, and I’m thinking, “I should rewrite this entirely.”

I’m giving it a week for the shock of the idea to wear off, so I can sit with it and decide if it really is a good idea.

Reader (if you are reading this, ever, at any time), how do you figure out rewrites and/or edits? Alternately: Have I gone round the bend?

Confession of failure, already?

That grand plan of mine? I already kicked it over. Yesterday I came home with a headache and feeling rotten, and it was hot, and my cat was cute, and I just, I just really wanted to watch some NewsRadio with my eyes closed, okay?

Back on it today, though. Stories out on sub, having a staring contest with another piece, and I’m about to settle in with a delicious book about a mill strike.

Considering how much amazing free food I got today, I think the universe is okay with my day off yesterday.

I’m going to say right now that there was always a caveat for “movies or TV watched at the behest of friends” so if I happen to go see Ghostbusters then so be it.

But I do want to have as few exceptions as possible, because I’m curious about effects. Everything has an effect on the way you see the world, the way you think, what rattles around in your brain. So what happens when you take a hard right and change a large chunk of the input?

Hopefully genius.

On taking a break from media

I went to this two-week short story workshop, which was amazing. I got back a month ago, and have been meaning to write something about it. I think about it almost every day.

I went to Readercon last weekend, too, and intended to write something about it. Haven’t.

The short story workshop left me with three stories with varying amounts of polishing needed. None of them are on sub yet.

I have this idea for a project that I want to develop. I’ll need collaborators. I’ll need a co-writer, and people who know more about audio files than I do. But first I need to figure out more of it.

I miss playing with interactive fiction and Twine. It’s been a long time since I even opened Twine.

I want to play with writing poetry.

All of these things feel like they’re buried under a pile of junk. I don’t know what that junk is. Maybe it’s the god-awful heat of summer, as I am a creature made of dry dead leaves and impending snow. But I think it’s something else, what with the existence of air-conditioning and sun dresses.

It’s time for drastic measures, you see. In the past those drastic measures would be “BAN TUMBLR, BAN TWITTER.” But I’m not on Tumblr anymore, not really, and Twitter is important to me. Also, not that distracting most of the time.

So I’ve unplugged my external hard drives. No TV, no movies. I don’t have Netflix anymore. I’ll always have YouTube, but it’s not an automatic reflex/refuge.

I might take a break from most of my podcasts. They’ll be there when I come back, after all.

As a test, I’m even going to refrain from picking up another piece of fiction for a while. Just to see what happens in my brain. I read a lot. I can take a break for two weeks. And I’ve heard so many writers talk about how they can or can’t read other things when they’re in the midst of a project that I finally realized I’d never tried that. I’d always assumed I was fine. So I’m going to take a break on purpose.

No TV, no movies, no podcasts, no fiction. It’s kind of terrifying, actually. Distractions are very comforting.

Does anyone else ever do this? Do you institute a media blackout, or other sort of drastic measures? Or do you have other tactics to get things done?