Scintillating Dialogue

Ever felt your dialogue was not what it could be? In today's guest post, Fiona Carter covers tips for bringing your characters' conversations into the real world.  Enjoy!

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On Writing Scintillating Dialogue
By Fiona Carter

Dialogue is one of my absolute favorite parts of storytelling, and as a result, it’s a part I’ve put a lot of conscious effort into getting right. Like most authors, I struggled with that stilted feeling in my earliest attempts, and I’m certain I have plenty more to learn, but I’m proud to say that I’m often told now that my funny, sweet, and/or rip-your-heart-out scenes of dialogue are my greatest strength, so here, in a nutshell, is what I’ve figured out on the topic throughout my career thus far.

First, a note on stylized vs. realist dialogue:

These are not two different techniques so much as a sliding scale. All good dialogue is, by its very nature, stylized to some extent, just as all fiction is. Reality has lots of fluff that isn’t particularly meaningful or entertaining and never leads anywhere, both in and out of conversation.

Fiction conveys emotional truth by reflecting a distilled version of the emotionally relevant parts of reality, and dialogue is no exception. 100% realistic dialogue would have a lower frequency of memorable, resonating moments and be unreadably long-winded and aimless in places. On the other hand, dialogue that is far enough removed from reality that it no longer feels sincere has also failed at fiction’s goal.

Whether you aspire to be an uncanny realist or the novelist version of Quentin Tarantino, these tips should help give your dialogue the impact you’re looking for.

1: Listen to your characters.

Really listen. Hear what they sound like. All people, even people who grew up together, have slightly different speech patterns. Your characters should too. Depending on their life experiences and individual dispositions, different characters will use different turns of phrase, often turns of phrase you wouldn’t choose for yourself.

They’ll also verbally respond to situations differently. Some will have emotional outbursts at the drop of a hat, and some won’t. A volatile character who doesn’t react to a major occurrence will feel wrong (unless there’s an exceptional reason for it), as will a usually stable character having a meltdown over a minor occurrence (again, unless their unusual reaction is a noted plot point). If you need a tough character to have a meltdown, be prepared to arrange a plot that will convincingly push him or her over the edge.

That said, if you’re going to write a dialect dramatically different from your own, be careful. Study people who speak it, and err on the side of subtlety.

2: Write it from all sides.

Give all characters the dignity of speaking as if the scene is from their perspective. As writers, controlling all sides of a conversation, we have the power to tweak things a little bit to set characters up for better reactive lines than we’re likely to get in reality, but don’t abuse the privilege.

Every line spoken by every character, even the most minor of minor characters, must have some plausible, in-character thought process behind it. If a character only says something to set another character up for a line, or to offer exposition to the reader, the line will sound unnatural.

If you can’t find an effective way to rationalize it from the speaker’s perspective, find another way to slip in that exposition, or cut that great comeback you were setting up. Your work will benefit from it as a whole.

3: Remember that a scene is more than a script. It’s also a performance.

Your readers can’t see or hear your characters the way you can. They can only see the words. Think about how many different undertones the word “okay” can carry, depending on whether it’s said grudgingly, cheerfully, or somewhere in between. Consciously look for any unintentional way the spirit of the words could be lost or misinterpreted, and make the mood clear. A single line description of a character’s body language can make all the difference.

4: Let characters say what they want to say, not what you want to say.

Few things are more obvious or damaging to suspension of disbelief than an author pushing characters into a sock puppet argument analyzing an issue. Characters can certainly express beliefs if they come up naturally and help to develop the plot or relationships, but those beliefs must believably belong to those characters and be expressed the way those characters would spontaneously express them. When dialogue begins to sound like a rehearsed, structured demonstration by a school debate club, it no longer belongs in fiction.

If your story has a message, trust the subtle, honest exploration of the world, characters, and events to communicate it naturally.

5: As in all things, show, don’t tell.

People rarely talk about how they feel in clear, clinical terms. Moments of startling honesty are great if they’re used sparingly and set up believably, such as when characters are under extreme pressure, chemically/magically/otherwise mentally altered, or in company they deeply trust, but often a point can be made much more effectively through how they say things and in what they don’t say.

Suppose your characters are making up after a big fight. A gesture of peace, a few brief words about the heart of the problem, or even a few words about some inconsequential detail of the fight if your characters are still skirting their issues, will take you much further than a whole chapter of them analyzing their psyches in marital counseling session levels of detail.

6: Finally, say it out loud!

Act it out, the whole conversation, back and forth, the way you intend it to sound, with the narration left out. It’s the most effective way to identify those last little awkward parts that need adjusting, reactions that don’t quite follow logically, contractions that need to be added or removed.

Happy writing, everyone, and may your dialogue sparkle!

Fiona Carter writes under the pen name J R TitchnellF.J.R. Titchenell and is the author of several short stories and her latest full length novel, Confessions of the Very First Zombie Slayer (That I Know of) can be pre ordered from Amazon now.

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