How to Write Good Dialogue (Part Two)

My ancient (by Internet standards) post on “How to Write Good Dialogue” is inarguably the most popular of my bloggish renderings, based on search data anyway. (You probably preferred this one because you don’t like to follow the crowd. You’re the anti-hipster of hipsters.) It seemed prudent, then, to follow that up with another post on dialogue. [Checks date on previous post.] Yeah, I’m a little slow when it comes to prudence.

Anyway, here you go.

Wait…you read the other post, right? Well click here (or above where it’s also linked because I’m a linking fool) first. Then come back to this page for more dialogical goodness. [I don’t need to mention that there are exceptions to everything I tell you below, do I? I mean, you’re smart enough to know that without a reminder, right? Good. Then I won’t remind you.]

Look, Who’s Talking Now? – One of the most common dialogue problems I run into with first-time novelists is that all the characters sound alike. While this can appear to happen in real life (see: junior high girls), it doesn’t really. The words we choose to spit or drool from our lips differ from one person to the next (even among junior high girls). So does the rhythm of those words – the spaces between them. Some people repeat themselves because they don’t have many words to choose from. Some people use big words because they read a lot of books or found an abandoned thesaurus while waiting at the DMV. Our speech patterns are uniquely our own. Listen. No, I’m not saying that so you’ll pay closer attention to this blogpost. I’m encouraging you to actually listen to Real People in Conversation. Then apply what you’ve learned to your fiction. If you know your characters well (this is a theme I will never stop shouting), you’ll know how each of them uses language. Write that way. In the perfect written world, readers should be able to identify characters simply by their dialogue.

Are You Listening? – When a character is talking, the presumption is that the people they’re talking to are really listening. Because, of course, what your character is saying is Really Important to the Plot. But maybe they’re not listening quite so intently after all. Maybe they’re queuing up a response, unwilling to hear what the speaker is saying because what they have to say is so much more important. (This never happens in real life. Ahem.) Or maybe they’re distracted by something going on around them. (Despite how they might look on the page, conversations don’t exist in a vacuum. The world spins madly on.) Or maybe they’re actively ignoring the speaker, not because they have something more important to say, but because they simply don’t like the jerk. Consider how the characters are (or aren’t) listening, and you’ll naturally write more believable dialogue.

Context Rules – Don’t feed lines to your characters so they can tell the readers what is going on. That’s just lazy and rude. Use context to deliver the details that people wouldn’t naturally be talking about. Show me the red button that triggers the missiles. Don’t make the character say, “This is the red button that triggers the missiles” if everyone in the room already knows that. Whenever a character reveals something that he wouldn’t naturally say in conversation with the person he’s talking to, I am pushed out of the moment, forced to consider the possibility that these characters are pausing their story to talk directly to me. That’s just dumb. (Unless you’re using that perspective/voice as a literary device. But please, don’t do this unless you’re really a brilliant writer. Thanks.) Build context, then trust it.

I Know, Right? – Characters who know each other pre-exist that conversation on the page; they have a history together. They communicate (just like you do with people you know) in a kind of shorthand. Not everything is said – not everything needs to be said. When Bob says, “He’s dead, Jim,” to Bonnie, there’s no need to explain this to the reader. Let the characters have lives beyond the page. As above, allow context to give us enough to figure out the rest. Instead of writing “Bonnie smiled, remembering how Bob always used to watch Star Trek.” Have her respond with a smile and, “No, he’s only pining.” Don’t explain it. It’s their in-joke. Some readers will know the references, some won’t. That’s okay. What all readers will get from that exchange is that these two have history – they know each other in a way that can be seen in a simple, unexplained exchange.

Say Something, Anything – Or don’t. Dialogue isn’t just words; it’s also the things we don’t say, the pauses and the spaces and the awkward, echoing silence. Sometimes the best thing a character can say is nothing at all. Use this sparingly for greater effect, but don’t ignore the emotional power of wordlessness.

Stop Talking – Break up those dialogue scenes with compelling expository writing. Just as Big Blocks of Expository writing can weigh heavy on some readers (I often hesitate before buying a book that is comprised of unending blocks of unbroken text), so can conversations that go on for page after page after page. It’s not a conversation, it’s a novel. Conversation is a piece of that puzzle, not the whole thing. Mix it up.

Rants and Speechifying – Rants can be entertaining. They’re usually fueled by strong emotion, so they tend to reveal a lot about the Ranter. Speeches, on the other hand, are often boring. In fiction, speeches typically appear on the page when there’s Something Very Important to say. Fine. But before you give a character a long speech, make sure he’s the speechifying kind (know your characters), and make damn sure it’s reasonable in context. So many speeches spouted by characters end up sounding like the writer is preaching to the reader. I don’t want characters to preach to me. I want them to react honestly to the circumstances they’re facing. In my experience, speeches serve best as background noise for while you check your email. Rants, however – even wrong-minded rants, especially those – can be dangerous. Danger is good for fiction. Boredom? Not so much.

‘Nuff Said – There will come a time during a conversation when one or more of the people involved will run out of things to say. Unless that’s the point of the conversation, end it sooner. Do something interesting with exposition to keep the reader’s interest. There will also come a time when a character simply doesn’t know what to say. This may be because you don’t know your character all that well. (You know what to do.) Or perhaps it’s because the conversation has simply run its course. End it. Don’t drag on conversations just to fill a page.

Bonus advice: Don’t drag out blogposts, either.

“He’s dead, Jim.”

How to Write a Novel

You’re going to need an idea.

It can be a clever plot. Something about uncontrollable magic or unpredictable mayhem or unconventional love. Or maybe your idea is a character. Someone who stands out. Someone who blends in. Someone who lives in a coffee house attic. Someone whose feet never touch the ground.

Okay, now the hardest part: You must write a sentence. Any sentence will do (yes, even a sentence fragment) because you’ll probably change it a hundred times anyway. Here, I wrote some for you:

  • The monkey never saw it coming.
  • Halfway between the sky and the sidewalk, she realized she had forgotten how to fly.
  • His favorite sound and his favorite activity were defined by the same two words: shattering glass.
  • Nothing moved.

Next comes the hardest part: You have to write more sentences. Lots of them. Good ones. Bad ones. Brilliant ones. Ugly ones. Sentence after sentence after sentence after sentence.

This is going to take you longer than you thought. It always does. Oh, sure, you’ll have one 10,000 word weekend. And for a few days after, you’ll think of yourself as an Actual Professional Writer.

That feeling will fade.

After three weekends in a row with an average output of 723 words, you’ll be ready to quit.

You’ll be ready to quit a lot. Writers walk a tightrope from the beginning of a book until the end and even the slightest breeze can tip them off balance. You know these breezes by their more common names: doubt, frustration, uncertainty, hopelessness, fear, distraction. They’re relentless, so just fix your eyes on the other side and keep moving. It’s okay if you only wrote seven sentences today. It’s even okay if those seven sentences suck.

Just stick to it. If you do, you’ll eventually be ready to face the hardest part of writing a novel: Typing “The End.” Yes, there’s a moment of satisfaction, perhaps even joy in typing those two words. It’s a well-deserved moment. You just wrote a novel!

No. You didn’t.

You just wrote a first draft. When you type “The End,” you’re actually typing “The Beginning of All That I Still Have to Do to Make This Great.”

But there is some good news here. You’ve made it to the hardest part of writing: Revisions.

During this season of a book, you’re no longer on a tightrope; you’re carving through a jungle of your own making with a machete. All sentences are suspect. Many must die. You’ll have to write some new sentences, too. Lots of them. (I know the machete metaphor breaks down here. Let it go.)

During the (interminable) revision process, you’ll hand your “latest draft” to friends and family and hired strangers. They’ll nearly always tell you what you don’t want to hear: “It’s not finished yet.” Deciding which suggestions to use and which to ignore may very well be the hardest part of writing.

[Side note: Revisions last forever. I’m not being hyperbolic. Twenty years after your novel has hit the bestseller lists, you’ll still be re-writing it in your head.]

This leads to the hardest part* of writing a novel: Deciding to be done with it. Despite the infinite revisions that will go on in your head, there comes a time when you must say “Enough!!” (in a doubly-exclamatory voice) and begin the marketing process or the agent-search process or the contest-entering process, so you can move on to the next book.

The next book? The next book.

Sigh.

You’re going to need an idea…

 

*I’m well aware that I described every step as “the hardest part” of writing. I don’t need to explain myself here, do I?

Chasing, Maybe

When I first started writing, I attempted to emulate my favorite authors (though Arthur C. Clarke and Ernest Hemingway would have struggled to find even the slightest resemblance). This is the way it goes for many writers. We begin our journey to uniqueness by trying to be someone else. Isn’t it the same way with musicians? [Cue “Smoke on the Water.”] It’s only after hundreds of thousands of words, most of which we prefer to forget, that we finally begin to find our one-of-a-kind writing voice.*

And then what do we do? We use that compellingly unique voice to tell the stories we think will sell.

Not right away. First there’s a season when we write the stories of our heart without consideration of marketability. These are the stories that poke at us from the inside. Stories that defy traditional categorization. Plots that take unpopular twists. Characters who don’t act the way they do in other people’s books.

For many writers, that season doesn’t last. Stories that poke writers from the inside are often a tough sell, especially through traditional circles (but also in the new world of Self-Publish Whatever You Want).

I didn’t really mean it, Marketing. Have I told you how nice you look today? Love the bow tie. You’re wearing it ironically, right?

Selling books is an honorable and good goal. We find validation in readership and readership mostly comes from selling books. (Or giving them away. But that’s the subject of another blog post.) I know we say “I don’t care if I become rich and famous, I’m happy if even one person likes my novel.” But we don’t mean it as much as we’d like to. And it’s because we don’t mean it as much as we’d like to that our writing often takes a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) detour. We start to ask different “Maybe” questions than we once did.

Maybe if I make the vampires more sparkly.

Maybe if I add a love triangle.

Maybe if I sprinkle in a few zombies.

Maybe if I make the antagonist more Republican.

Don’t miss the point here. Maybe isn’t a bad word. Quite the contrary. Writers are made out of Maybes. But when the market (or our best understanding of it) begins to dictate what kind of Maybes we should ponder in the writing process, we risk losing what makes our writing voice unique. Note that I said “we risk losing.” It’s not a given that a writer in search of sales will lose his voice in that pursuit. But the temptation to “write books that can sell” can chip away at what makes that writer uniquely wonderful.

So is it some kind of compromise then? Finding the happy medium between who we are and what we know will sell? If your primary goal is to sell books, then yes, the writing process will sometimes feel like compromise. You’ll choose genres that you might not have chosen to write before. You’ll revise your story so it grabs readers from page one, rather than letting it simmer for a few chapters as in your original plan. You’ll add subplots to spice up the romance or kick up the action.

Is that such a bad thing?

No. It’s your story and you can do whatever you want with it. And a good editor will help you maintain your voice even as you work toward your primary goal of selling books.

So it’s all good, then, right?

Yep. It’s all good. That is, until you feel a story poking at you from the inside that doesn’t fit the current brand-development plan.

I know what you’re thinking. You can write both kinds of books. The ones that have a good chance of selling, and the ones that poke at you from the inside. (I’m aware they might actually be one and the same. If they are? Why are you reading this? Surely not so you can gloat. You’re far too content with your writing life to gloat.)

Go ahead and divide yourself into two authors – the one who cranks out romance novels for a ready audience and the one who writes about the lost legacy of forgotten presidents. (Or whatever.) Then let me know where you found all those extra hours in a day, because you’re going to need them to support two careers.

If you have that kind of time, go for it. Seriously. You’ll have the best of both worlds. But if you don’t? Well, I’d counsel my authors to write the sellable books. And then I’d do my damnedest to make sure each one is amazing and notable for its uniquely compelling author’s voice.

But as you may already know about me, I don’t often take my own advice. I have a hard time writing shitty first drafts (you might disagree, of course) and I don’t write every day and I have poor posture and suffer from questionable eating habits. (Breakfast – it’s the most important meal of the day. That’s why I save it for late afternoon, when I’m actually hungry.)

I had a brief season when I tried to write marketable books. Those unfinished masterpieces have since been relegated to the “Nope” folder on my computer.

Instead, I have decided to only write those books that poke at me from the inside.

There’s the novelette (really? who reads those?) about a bomb that lands on a boy’s desk, and the way his life is changed by that singular event. And the speculative YA novel that has no factions, no love triangles, and no chapters-long training scenes. And the story about a 10-year-old girl named Raspberry who moves with her dying father to live on a hill overlooking a haunted forest.

When people ask me what genre my books are, I don’t know what to tell them.

They’re…um…about longing and loss and hope and brokenness and grace and sometimes monsters. They’re…Stephenesque?

Not very compelling cover copy.

Do I want my books to sell? Of course. And to that end, I’m self-publishing some and pursuing an agent for others. But I’m not chasing royalties. I’m not chasing validation. I’m simply chasing the stories. So far, it’s been quite an entertaining journey. And you’ll never guess what I’m finding along the way…

Myself.

 

*Not sure if you’ve found yours yet? Here’s a test. Go back to the last thing you’ve written after leaving it alone for a couple of weeks. If you find yourself wondering what brilliant novelist is secretly making your words sound better, you’re quite probably there. Or at least at the beginning of “there.” Your voice will change over time as you do. And if you aren’t impressed by your words? Well, that doesn’t mean you can’t write. Nor does it mean you can’t sell books. Readers are a fickle bunch. And I’m sure you’ll agree that they don’t care a tenth as much about writing voice as you or I do. Except the ones that are also writers. (I think I just created another black hole there. Sorry, Siberia.)

The Fault in Our Stares

If Neil Gaiman walked into this coffee shop, I’d be starstruck. I’m not easily starstruck. As I slog through the latter part of middle age, I just don’t have the energy to drum up enthusiasm for the common celebrity. Confession: I haven’t read Entertainment Weekly in years.

Last summer I visited the set of the new Zach Braff movie (coming to theaters near you this July – and depending on the edit, starring me in one scene as a blurry background extra) and was non-plussed by the famously tanned faces that wandered in and out of the virtual frame. My favorite part of the visit was talking briefly with Zach’s much less famous brother, Adam, who is the co-author of the screenplay. (For the record, I would have been equally interested in talking with the other Braff, Joshua, who wrote the surprisingly compelling coming-of-age novel, The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green. But he was off living his regular life.)

The only category of the self-congratulatory spectacle known as The Oscars that even remotely interests me is “Original Screenplay.” Yes, Cate Blanchett is a wonder of evolution, but I’d still rather talk story with Spike Jonze than glad-hand with Galadriel.

I like to tell myself that my predilection for pen monkeys* over prima donnas makes me a little less shallow than typical celebrity fawners, but that’s just a poor attempt to pretend I’m not totally smitten by those who pay their dues with the written.

Consider John Green, for example. I mean, look at the guy. Nerd. Normal. Generous. Funny. Successful. He’s the me I didn’t know I always wanted to be. Or maybe should have been.

And J. K. Rowling. I want to spend my summer vacation in her imagination. Then I want to learn a spell to make myself 12 again so I can enjoy delivering the best “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” report in the history of life.

And Marilynne Robinson. I’m a slow writer because I don’t know what to say. She’s a slow writer because she wants to be certain of what she says. I want her patience (right now) and her gentle genius for character.

And of course, Neil. I visited both the House on the Rock and Rock City long before I read American Gods. And I had a passing interest in mythology. It’s like I had all the pieces I needed to write that book except Neil’s brilliant mind. And how did he know I once wished for an ocean at the end of my childhood street? How could anyone know that? I want his way with words.

I want all their writerly gifts. I even want a taste of the celebrity I claim to have no interest in. I want people to line up at my book signings all a-quiver to be in the same room as “that cool guy who wrote that amazing thing I read fifteen times!”

When I stop to think about it, though, I realize what I really want is simply to be a great writer. The kind worthy of such admiration, whether or not it ever comes. But I’m not going to get there by drooling at the feet of my writerly idols.

So if Neil Gaiman walks into this coffee shop, I’ll try not to stare. Instead, I’ll offer a nod of respect, then return my attention to my laptop. I’ll write until I understand why I use phrases like “predilection for pen monkeys,” then I’ll keep writing until I become the best version of the only person who can write like me.

Meanwhile, I’ll brush up on my Neil Gaiman impersonation. I mean, in case of future book signings. Because nothing makes fans go all a-quiver like a smart English accent.

 

*Pen Monkey is a term I discovered on writer/writing guru Chuck Wendig’s blog. He’s way smarter than I am and a far superior writer and blogger. What are you still doing here anyway? Go there. You don’t need me anymore.