People talk too much. For a writer trying to figure out how to write good dialogue in fiction, that’s a good thing.
Here are a few short points to think about as a fiction writer.
- Listen to other people’s conversations.
- Listen with intent; What are they trying to tell each other?
- Is it an instructional conversation where one person is being guided by the other’s words?
- Especially, listen to the very last words spoken. The words that sum it all up.
- The last words could break a conversation.
- Can you hear a tone of voice that indicates that the words are being used as camouflage for another sentiment that isn’t being spoken?
“Write hard and clear about what hurts”
Listening to people speaking, on the train, bus, when you are walking along the street and standing in a shop, are all good places to eavesdrop on people’s patterns of speech.
When we write an exchange of words between two characters we should think deeply about what they really want to say.
In real life, people hum and ha, they falter with their words and they don’t really get to the point very quickly. This causes misunderstandings. People end up arguing about something that was said, but often, something that wasn’t meant to be said.
When you tell a good story and you want to write your dialogue in a smart, snappy, and direct way, then listen to how people get to the point of what they are saying. They finally say what they mean and the conversation comes to a finish.
When I write, I think about what I want my characters to say, and then I ask myself what will be the last words that are exchanged. Those last words will be what the reader remembers and feels as the lead into a new scene in the story. Those last words will set-up a new problem, indicate new actions, and create a new feeling to follow through the next couple of pages until somebody says something that changes things again.
Narrative leaps are Common.
People leave out half the information. When we speak to each other we expect that the listener will be able to fill in the gaps in our message – then we wonder when they drew the wrong conclusion. As an author you are forced into making your character’s way of speaking direct and succinct, a character will bore a reader if their speech pattern sounds like the dribbling syrup of a real conversation.
Writing good dialogue in fiction is about hitting the right notes in the patterns of speech. There is a lot to think about, a lot to disclude from the conversation. Readers need and expect to be swept along in a story, they shouldn’t be the ones who have to figure out what the hell a character is trying to say. You, as writer, have to choose a dialogue that reflects truths said, but not biblical truths.
“If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us, as with a fist hammering on the skull, why then do we read it”
A character will have something to say that reflects his or her needs and aims in his story. That is the truth to exploit in each piece of fictional dialogue. You make it up, but search diligently for the truth of a character’s needs.
Those needs and goals will be in every word they speak.
Subtexts are a Great way to Create Tension in your Writing.
Narrative leaps and subtexts are things not said. But somehow, they should be so obvious, they should have been said – but it was so much better that the other character had to work it out. or not, and take action on what he or she perceived as the truth.
The truth in dialogue is there for the characters to work with, they must react and show your readers what is happening, who is winning and who is failing. The dialogue will drive your plot along into the next explosive scene and keep your readers on the edge of their seats.
A subtext is when a character only indicates an idea through a pattern of speech. Maybe, she is being to coy or over polite about how she speaks with the other character. Maybe, they don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, or they are not sure if they should fully say what they mean.
“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self” Franz Kafka
People do this in real life. What happens? Misunderstandings occur and people argue or act in the wrong ways. It’s a good device in writing dialogue in fiction, but better used like a salt and pepper on the main dish.
Narrative leaps, subtexts, and direct speech are basic devices of language that we recognize as normal ways to communicate with each other.
If you practice listening to snippets of conversations around you, you will hear all of these being used to make a conversation candid, or short and curt, to intentionally confuse a listener or even that the speaker is not competent to explain an idea. They are fascinating to listen to, and good writer will have fun and learn while listening.
Your listening to real people will inform you of how people vary their speech; writers learn from real life, then, somehow, practice fitting the truthful bits into their dialogue while writing a fiction piece for readers to interpret.
There is no recreating a real chunk of life because you are writing for a reader to identify with. You are not reporting on events heard. The readers didn’t hear what you heard, readers will fill in the gaps with their knowledge – so in a way, you as writer are writing with narrative leaps, and subtexts without knowing it, and with no control. Maybe, that’s where the magic of words works or doesn’t work.
Readers are your listeners. You listen to the world of words, and use them, bend them, and draw sustenance from them, but writers don’t relay words heard into their story and expect readers to feel what they felt while listening to a real-world conversation. This is important.
Words are symbols. Dialogue is expression. Reading is interpretation of the symbol. We read and interpret according to our own view of things.
So, write with your reader in mind. Many authors like to write with only one reader in mind. It might be their next door neighbor, or it might be a formulated idea of an ideal reader, an intellectual, curious, prof-type who you want to read your books, if your neighbors appears to fit the reader description, then her face will do as a driving force for your words.
It’s all an experiment and we will only know if our words work when a reader let’s us know about it. They will write great comments, they will tell their friends about your story, and they will often read for themselves and close the book and say nothing; you made them think private thoughts, and they will keep their sentiments to themselves. That’s also a compliment and and achievement for a fiction writer.
Writing good dialogue in fiction is hard, it requires lots of practice.
One reason for this is that each writer works individually and shouldn’t care a less about how others are doing it.
We only know that we must stick to the basic rules of being clear about which bits of dialogue are direct speech, which bits are not there but are implied dialogue, and what the character is trying to make happen with her words.
Also, we should forget the rules while we write and just hope that what we have thought deeply about in dialogue will shine through in our work.
Torturous dialogue, really sticky and gooey to read, comes from over labored thinking and rewriting on the writer’s side.
Long sentences are great – practice them in dialogue, and narrative. The skill is to make sure that the reader doesn’t notice that the paragraph you wrote is actually just a long sentence.
Report writing is about being short and curt – to the point. Fiction writing and dialogue in fiction is about telling a long and winding story that readers love to read and enjoy. It is not about writing as if for a 5 year old, and it is not about developing the skill of writing three word sentences like in all the best seller books. A constant machine gun of three burst sentences over 80 thousand words is like spending a weekend, sober, in a techno disco with a very bad DJ.
You can’t write dialogue and please everybody – you will never will.
People read for different reasons, some for fun and relaxation, some read to feed their desire for adventure, thrills and spills. Others read to reflect on the human condition and seek out deeper books with heavy themes that are reflected in the dialogues.
Dialogue gives the reader a sense of what is being communicated between characters. It depends on your style as to how it comes across, but it will always be a sense of the feelings that humans have and want to express – it will never be a cold, simple, expression of dead facts.
“Good Dialogue is not real speech, it is the illusion of speech”
Writing dialogue is a matter of learning to listen to the world of speech and realise how varied it is. Then, as author, you must figure out how to find those truths that lie between the words, in the tones, the emotions of anger and happiness that change the meaning of words and give them subtext. The Narrative of voices that leap through gullies and valleys of thoughts.
You can’t pin it down and nail it to the table like it’s a trick to learn. each story requires a different approach from you, but each time it’s the same skills that you’ve honed and practiced that will help you write good dialogue in your fiction stories.