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)

 

Too much talking and too many rules

On Twitter, someone linked to this post (I want to say it was Kelly Link, but it was sometime last week, and I’m pretty sure Twitter doesn’t exist more than 24 hours into the past) and when I finally read it, it felt like sinking into a chair I forgot I owned, and thinking, “When did I put this in storage? Why isn’t this in my living room?”

Anyway, the post is Reality Affects by Matthew Cheney, talking about another essay (What Should Fiction Do by Bonnie Nadzam).

When you hang out with a lot of readers and writers, it’s really easy to get caught up in what others think fiction ought to be. If there’s a formula, if there’s a map, if there is a right and a wrong when it comes to shaping a story, that makes things easier. If there’s a way to do it right, wouldn’t you want to do that? If someone says they know how to write a story that will get an agent’s attention, that will be a bestseller, well, heck, maybe they do know! Maybe if you do what they say, you’ll sell your next book, and everything will be okay.

Writing from inside these conversations, while surrounded by movies, while seeing each book-of-the-moment pass by, at some point you might accidentally absorb all these rules about stories. You have to have an inciting incident. Your character has to go on a journey. They must refuse the call and have a thousand faces. Your protagonist must try and fail and try again, try bigger, fail harder. There must be scenes and sequels, action and cliffhangers, emotional processing, a familiar shape like a mountain, like a bell curve…

But is that all? Of course not.

I don’t think I even noticed that I’d absorbed and built up these rules around me, until they started to chafe. I wanted to follow patterns, to obey plot structure, and by God, I wanted to do things right. If I’m going to do a thing, I better do it right. I will listen, I will take notes, I will show up and do it exactly as you’re supposed to. I will analyze and figure out what the heck a chapter is, where and how often to drop foreshadowing, how much to worldbuild, when exactly to have the protagonist hit their dark night, their nadir, and when I finally slog through writing this book, I’ll have done it up right.

Oh, Lord, is it tiring and deadening to think like that. Do it right? What’s that even mean? everything is made up. Like, all of art is a construct of one sort or another. The rules come from the last group of people who were making it up as they went along. They looked at what had been done, and did something a little different. And a little different again. Or a lot different! Transgressing the established formula speaks to the thing you’re transgressing as well as asking a reader to be more conscious of what they’re reading. And I find that very interesting. Not the idea of breaking all the rules for the sake of breaking things, but not being beholden to them.

Literature deserves more than formulas, more than cinema. The written word can do interesting and complex things, different from the mapped out swoop of a story, something other than fake cinema. Written stories can do so much more than what’s popular and salable right at this moment. Beyond all that writing advice that’s in digestible bullets and charts. And I’m very interested in all that lately, freshly, again.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that literature isn’t doing any of this. Only that’s it’s very easy to find myself suddenly wearing blinders I didn’t know I’d picked up, and get trapped into thinking X the only way to do writing right. Cheney’s essay was like a cold splash of water to wake me up and remind me of the things that excite me most. I read it at a good time, when I was feeling weary and sort of confused about this one project, and realized I was weighted down by the idea of doing all these things right.

It’s nice to be reminded that “right” is debatable, and so is the idea of what fiction should do.

 

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?

On documentary format in novels

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This is honestly more description than the interviews in this book received. (photo via)

I am puzzled.

Recently I’ve received a couple books that are in a documentary format, primarily interviews, with a few faux news reports or audio diary transcripts. Specifically audio diaries. It’s weird. There’s something in the air.

Is this an attempt to ape a format from another medium? People talk about the growth of ‘cinematic’ writing (which is yet another meaningless phrase that only confuses people as they disagree on the definition, but WHATEVER) so is this just another layer of extrapolation after that? Trying to translate documentaries into novels?

Friends, we’ve already discovered that format for writing. It’s called non-fiction. There aren’t that many non-fiction books in this specific interview/transcript format for a reason.

This isn’t to say that trying new formats is terrible and no one should ever do it. But trying to imitate documentaries in book format this way feels a bit like using translation software to get text from English to Japanese to Spanish and seeing what you get. You can do it. But without some extra work, it’s not going to be any good to anyone.

Authors that are successful massage the format to make use of novelistic techniques — techniques that make books unique, make them different from movies. They still bring in techniques inspired by movies, but they don’t drop everything that’s powerful about the written word. And when they do bring in movie techniques, ones that rely heavily on visual or aural cues, they figure out a way to translate those cues.

Because here’s the problem: Interviews. Transcripts. With nothing else. No support.

You get two people talking in a white room, no sense of how these people look, act, or sound (unless there are clumsy comments made by either of the people). Interviews happen after action, so we as readers don’t even get to see what happens — we hear about it afterward! No one likes that! I don’t care about how a character feels about things exploding two days after the fact. I don’t care about two characters slowly falling for each other (maybe??? It’s hard to tell!) if they are never on the page together because of the interview format.

If an entire novel is done in dialogue/monologue like this, that author had better be a master stylist who can really nail down character voices. Losing the power of description and narration means dialogue has to carry that weight, and man. Not a lot of people can write dialogue that good.

No actor is going to come in and give the words life through body language, tone, a single minute gesture. That’s what the rest of the novel is there for. That’s why we don’t read movie scripts. We watch movies.

Wait, or is it an attempt to imitate the format of archive files? Like, transcripts from recordings surrounding an “incident”? Reaching for a sort of verisimilitude found in a bunch of musty manila folders in a locked file cabinet deep in the archives of the X-Files? Because, let me tell you, documents in a manila folder do not make engaging reading.

Anyway, hooray, I gave up on this particular book and my life is the better for it. If you have an example of this format done well, PLEASE SHARE and I’ll be your new best friend.

A slow art

SICHA: I meet a lot of people in their twenties, and they’re concerned. They want to get published, and I think, “Well, hopefully you’re going to live a little while. Don’t walk in front of any trucks.”

LE GUIN: I don’t think most people write very good narrative prose until they’re in their later twenties. Writing is a slow art. Music can be such a fast and early art. A good musician can be just terrific at 16. But how many writers are there … I mean, even Keats is still blundering around at 16. By his early twenties, of course, he’s writing immortal poetry, but there aren’t a lot of Keatses, really. There’s where you get “gift” to a degree that it’s kind of like a miracle. You can’t use the Keatses to talk about writing as a craft or an art or a practice or a profession. The geniuses—they’re off there, doing their lovely thing.

SICHA: They mess up the scale for the rest of us.

LE GUIN: That’s okay. You just have to realize you’re not going to get there, but so what? You can still do beautiful work.

SICHA: There’s room for plenty of people.

Choire Sicha interviewed Ursula K. Le Guin

The long game is no fun. I want instant gratification!!

I don’t like to call things ‘resolutions’ because of connotations around the word (so tightly paired with inevitable failure) but obviously that’s the right word for: This is the year I get over my weird reluctance to pursue the sort of traditional avenues of improving writing. It’s a talent, but it’s a craft. There’s a certain amount you can learn from doing the thing, and there’s some you can learn from talking to others who are doing the thing. But I guess I admit that there’s gotta be more to learn from the right ‘traditional’ sources (i.e., ones that aren’t trying to nudge me into writing rainwater-in-an-ashtray literary fiction. I’m fine with a certain amount of that, but for god’s sake, give me magic too).

So I’ve got this list of books to read. Some of ’em will be disappointing; some’ll be great, I hope. We’ll see what else might happen.