Today editor Linda Clare tackles further pitfalls of dialog in our look at Fatal Flaw # 8: Flawed Dialog Construction. If you missed last week’s introductory post, read it here.
“Dialog takes pains to appear totally realistic without being so at all, for it is very much the product of conscious craft.”
Writing realistic dialog is a challenge for fiction writers. Seems like it shouldn’t be. Talking is a natural, daily activity in our lives, something we often do without much forethought. So why is dialog sometimes the hardest thing to construct well in our stories?
New writers often attempt to reproduce actual conversations, only to find that this real dialog don’t work as fictional dialog. What’s going on?
Seasoned writers know that in writing, dialog sounds like real speech—but it isn’t. While some writers have a natural “ear” for good dialog, others must learn the principles of writing dialog. Although dialog writing guidelines include everything from knowing that punctuation usually goes inside the quotation marks to the admonition not to make characters sound like English butlers, let’s look at three easy ways you can craft better dialog.
Build Characters and Surprise
Ever hear feedback along the lines of “All the characters sound alike” or “they all sound like you”? One of the main ways readers imagine characters is through what the characters say and the way they say it.
When you create characters, pay attention to speech patterns, cadences, and slang use. A twelve-year-old doesn’t speak like his grandpa. Men and women often have different and recognizable speech. Educated vs. noneducated, modern vs. historical, foreign vs. domestic—these particulars and more will influence how your character speaks.
As you craft lines of dialog, you are also building character. If the character is dishonest, the dialog might take on words of avoidance or embellishment. If your character is naïve, she’ll speak a lot differently than someone more experienced. What your character says and doesn’t say will present readers with clues to personality, fears, desires, and motives.
Dialog also helps build surprise in story. If readers aren’t sure what your character will say next, tension increases. Rising tension is almost always critical to maintain readers’ interest. If a character asks another a question, for instance, instead of having the other character simply answer yes or no, you can build tension by crafting an unexpected answer.
A classic example might be, “Who’s there?” Instead of a simple, “It’s me,” your question might be followed by “Who wants to know?” The second response gives the character saying it an attitude, which is more interesting than the obvious answer. By crafting surprising dialog, your character builds tension and character depth at the same time.
The Rule of Three for Dialog
About ten years ago in my college writing classes, I started to see a lot of speeches, talking heads, and the like in student work. Three is always a good number, so I introduced The Rule of Three for dialog. (For my other “Rules of Three,” read this post, and this one.)
When you are learning to write dialog, this “rule” may help keep the speeches and talking heads to a minimum. This Rule of Three states that whenever a character speaks three lines (sentences) of dialog, switch to 1) the other speaker, 2) a beat of action, emotion or inner thought or 3) a brief narrative. Following this model, after every three exchanges of words (e.g.: Are so. Am not. Are so.), switch to action, inner thought/emotion or narrative, including description or flashback.
Use Beats or Tags?
Finally, the debate still rages over whether the dialog attribution is dead. Attributions are also known as “speech tags,” as they identify the speaker, ideally with “said.” Beginners soon learn to avoid creative tags (he expostulated, he exclaimed, she observed) and “ly” emotions that tell instead of show (“she said anxiously”). But how can you get a more complete picture of how a line is spoken?
Beats (sentences) of action, inner thought, or emotion placed next to the dialog can substitute for both the attribution as well as the emotion/thought.
My personal opinion is that using “he said” isn’t going to get a writer banished to outer darkness. The said is generally invisible to readers anyway. Yet dialog relies heavily on rhythm and pace. If you use the same placement and length of a beat again and again, it can turn singsong. The occasional said might help keep a scene going quickly if it’s interspersed with beats.
It’s up to you to choose an attribution or a beat, but variety tends to help any work of fiction. Just be sure to avoid those clunky tags that are formal or end in “ly.”
Now let’s look at Before and After examples:
Hannah pedaled faster. She had to reach Bob before the storm hit. As she neared the shop where her neighbor, Bob McGregor, tinkered on old cars, she braked and let her bike fall to the dirt. “Mr. McGregor, we must make haste! You will be engulfed by the rising floodwaters! Please, please, Bob, answer the door. I beg of you, we must be on our way. Now!” she exclaimed as she pounded on the shop’s door.
“Get your automobile so that we may flee! Have you not heard of the impending flood? Why do you not heed the warnings?” Hannah said in urgency. “Mother informed me that the storm is almost upon us! It is only a matter of minutes before your shop will be completely underwater. The meteorologist forecast that the river will crest this hour.”
Bob McGregor opened the door and shuffled out into bright sunshine. “All right, all right, I am answering the door. Who’s out there? What is all cacophony?” Bob said grouchily. “The meteorologist is the only occupation I am aware of where one gets compensated for being incorrect,” he lectured. Predicting the weather is not a science,” he continued. “And I do not believe anyone can successfully predict where the winds and currents will rise up. Why, back in my day, we did not require a professional to tell us what my grandmother’s rheumatic knees predicted. And she was ever correct,” Bob orated.
Hannah pulled Bob’s arm. “This time you are incorrect,” she said breathlessly. “Mother stated that we need to travel upon the river road.”
“Traverse the river road?” Bob asked in confusion and alarm. “How could it be? My knees are perfectly fine. Besides, I am in the midst of remodeling my workbench.”
“It is expedient,” she blurted out.
“You are an impertinent young girl,” came Bob’s dry answer.
“I only desire to remain a living, breathing female.” Hannah’s voice was strained.
Hannah pedaled faster. She had to reach Bob before the storm hit. As she neared the shop where her neighbor, Bob McGregor, tinkered on old cars, she braked and let her bike fall to the dirt.
“Mr. McGregor, hurry!” She pounded on the shop’s door. “Pull the car out!” Hannah’s heart pounded in her ears. “Ma says the storm’s coming!” She closed her eyes. Would old Bob put up a fight?
Bob McGregor opened the door and shuffled out into bright sunshine. “What’s all this racket?” His scowl made Hannah’s heart sink. “Dang weatherman’s the job I know where you get paid for being wrong.” He wagged a finger under Hannah’s nose.
Hannah pulled Bob’s arm. “This time it’s for real,” she said. “Mother told me we need to take the river road.”
Bob’s eyes widened. “The river road?”
“It’s fastest.” She didn’t add that Bob was possibly the slowest old dude on the planet.
Bob crossed his arms and didn’t budge. “You’re awful bossy for a young girl.”
Hannah pulled him along. She couldn’t waste another minute arguing with the old coot. “I just want to be a living girl,” she said.
In the first example, Hannah’s dialog sounds like the minutes from a boring city council meeting. No young person would say these types of things. Even the adult, Bob, takes on a very formal tone. This lessens each character’s distinction for readers.
There’s no surprise here, either. Both have the same tone—boring. Both characters ignore The Rule of Three, and there’s a mix of ridiculous attributions as well as telling “ly” words.
In the After rewrite, each character says more age-appropriate things. I eliminated the silly attributions, substituting beats of action or inner thought/emotion. I used the Rule of Three to whittle deadwood from the conversation, thereby speeding up the pace.
Use these ideas to help you create dialog that sounds like real speech—but isn’t.
What is the most difficult aspect of crafting dialog for you? Can you think of places in your own work where different ways of speaking/thinking, substituting beats for attributions and/or employing The Rule of Three might help?
Remember the “rule” is only a guideline, meant to help you develop your own rhythm and style in crafting dialog. What are some of your favorite tips for writing dialog?