Updated: Mar 3, 2020
Here’s your fun fact for the day: HP Lovecraft couldn’t write dialogue to save his life.
He HATED writing dialogue to the point that he would attempt to avoid it altogether, unless it was essential for his story. Even then, he tried to use it as little as possible. Why was this? In addition to being painfully shy and introverted, Lovecraft didn’t enjoy writing about people that he saw as below his own social class. He wrote in a letter that he couldn’t “write about ‘ordinary people’ because I am not in the least interested in them.” (Taken from Michael Berry’s “Cheaper Ironies” blog.)
Oh, come on, I’m sure I hear you argue. It can’t really be that bad, can it?
Oh, it really can be. Here’s a sample from his character Zadok Allen from the horror novella “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (and please, try not to cringe too hard): “Them things liked human sacrifices [...] what they done to the victims ain’t fer me to say, an’ I guess Obed wan’t none too sharp abaout askin’.”
Wow. He’s supposed to be from New England. I can’t think of anyone in real life--from NE, or anywhere else--who talks like that. Can you?
And he’s not the only one who has had problems with writing dialogue. Prolific author Janet Evanovich said that she had so much trouble writing dialogue that she joined an improv class to hone her skills. Franz Kafka would complain that he wrote too much like how he thought, which was vastly different from how he--and other people--spoke.
So, what’s my point, you may ask? If you’re having trouble with dialogue, you’re not alone!
But how can we do it and do it well? If you remember our last blog--and man, I hope you do!--you might remember that dialogue is a fairly fluid entity in any story. It can be used to establish character traits, further plot, provide background information or foreshadowing, give contextual details for motivation, address and deepen conflict... but at the same time, it’s all dependent. It’s up to the author to wield dialogue as a tool, making their piece more realistic. That’s the question I want to answer today!
On August first, we asked what concerns you have about writing dialogue, and we got A LOT of responses! (And believe me, you’re not alone...dialogue is one of the things that vexes writers the most when it comes to writing!) Looking at your answers, I realized that the responses fell into a few basic categories:
Realism: worries revolved around how characters sounded when they spoke with one another. Responses included “how do I make my dialogue sound realistic?” and “my dialogue sounds clunky/forced/fake, so what can I do?” (And also, “my dialogue sounds TOO natural, with too many ‘uh’, ‘um’, and ‘ah’ interjections...help!”)
Utilization: concerns in this category involved utilizing dialogue as a tool for different aspects of storytelling. Answers included “how do I progress my story/character development with dialogue?” and “how can I make my characters sound different enough to establish separate identities?”
Balance: concerns shown over how much was the ‘right amount’ of dialogue. Replies included “I’m told my stories are dialogue-heavy...what do I do?” and “where can I STOP using dialogue to move onto narrative or description?”
I’ve scoured web pages, looking for advice on writing dialogue, and I’ve compiled the answers below. So, let’s take a look at some of the advice, tips, and tricks for authors by authors on utilizing dialogue!
For those of you that worry about their characters sounding realistic:
Alice Kuipers, bestselling YA and Children’s book author, says “think about how each of your characters sounds. Make each voice distinct--this can be subtle or dramatic.” She says that using certain words or phrases can help your character
Stephen King agrees, saying “it’s dialogue that gives your characters your voices, and is crucial in defining their characters.”
Bottom line: it’s ESSENTIAL that your characters sound realistic; otherwise, your audience simply won’t believe your creation is real and tangible. The advice that has appeared more than once across the web pages is as follows:
Read your dialogue aloud. People have a natural rhythm to how they speak, and simply by reading your character's conversations out loud, you can quickly identify if the words sound realistic. This also allows you to cut out unnecessary words.
Think about how you talk, or your friends, or the people talking at the next table in the coffee shop that you like to frequent. Including every ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, ‘do you think we could possibly…’ can help make your writing less formal and more realistic.
The same can be said with including speech dysfluency, or filler words such as ‘um’, ‘uh’, and ‘oh’. These are tricky, though...if you use them too much, your speech becomes too choppy and you run the risk of having your characters sound indecisive or wishy-washy.
Dot your dialogue with non-verbal signals. Think about how you talk: you nod, shrug, give your conversational partner a double take… These can help to break up your dialogue and make the characters feel more natural.
This is also a good time to work in regional colloquialisms and slang. If your story is set in the south, make sure your characters know the difference between ‘y’all’ and ‘all y’all’. If your character is from Michigan--like me!--know that they would order ‘pop’ to drink, rather than ‘soda’, ‘soda pop’, or ‘coke’.
Moving on for those of you worried about utilization, here is some advice:
DON’T USE DIALOGUE FOR EXPOSITION. Dialogue can be used to establish background or conflict, but not in a giant block. If you write “oh, look, Gerald, here comes dear Timothy, who last week had a peanut butter sandwich and discovered that he had a horrific peanut allergy, which made his face puff up in such a way that his engagement pictures were ruined and then, after he went to the hospital, he walked into a wrong-way door and gave himself a black eye, and this accounts for his disfigurement today, however…” Are you sleeping? Seriously, wake up. Here’s a great rule of thumb: if you read your dialogue, and YOU think it’s getting boring, your audience will DEFINITELY think it’s boring.
Think your piece is getting a bit dialogue heavy? Let your narrative do the talking! Have a character look around. What is going on in the background? Did your character get distracted, or notice something unusual? This is a great time to describe it! Did another character arrive that could cause some conflict? Let them butt in! Dialogue should enhance the scene, not take it completely over.
There is nothing wrong with using good ol’ “he said/she said”. The web sites warn against too many dialogue tags, like ‘wheezed’, ‘chortled’, ‘sighed’, etc. This isn’t the same as avoiding them completely; using dialogue tags over and over and over can make your dialogue choppy. Using “he said/she said” still gets your point across, but it makes the flow a bit easier. If two men or two women are involved in the conversation, make sure to throw in a name now and then… This can simply reiterate who is speaking, so your audience doesn’t get mixed up.
Last, for those of you worried about balance:
There are some stories where having a big block of dialogue works. I just read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where different characters are listening to the main character/narrator describe his travels through Africa. BUT--there’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there?--this is not always the case. Listen to what your characters are saying, and look at what they are doing. You can see the scene perfectly in your head--and why not? You’re the one creating it, after all!--but try to take yourself out of the equation when you go back to read over your scene. Try to look at your piece like you are reading it for the first time, or let someone else read it. Think about the details in your mind’s eye, and try to see if they are coming across to your audience.
Nathan Bransford has said “a good conversation is an escalation...characters in a novel never just talk. There’s always more to it.” What can you provide that would add more to the story? Can you sprinkle in description, imagery, narrative? Again, try to look at your work as if you are a member of your chosen audience, rather than the author.
If you think that your work is lacking something, you are almost always correct. Break your dialogue with action. Even if it is merely a character sighing and thinking about somewhere else they would rather be, this action can add depth to the scene.
So, there you go! If you have further questions, perform a quick google search. When I was researching the tips and tricks to help sharpen dialogue, I was astounded by the sheer amount of articles there were on the internet, all geared toward helping writers write better dialogue.
This brings me to my last point: you are not alone. Dialogue has been hugely difficult for writers to craft, and if you are having problems, you are in good company!
Stay tuned for the August 500...and remember these tips and tricks as we leap into the second individual portion of the 2018 Writer’s Games…
And one more thing: just keep writing! If you want to get better at a sport, you need to practice. The same is true with writing. Write a little every day, and see how much you improve within a month, or six months, or twelve months! Write on, my friends!
About the Author: Once upon a time, Emily was introduced to the works of Stephen King. She became intrigued by the fact that ink and paper and imagination could be combined to create monsters that haunted her dreams. A passion for the written word was born. She first started dabbling in writing by penning fanfiction; but with the help of various English teachers, she branched out into more contemporary, original pieces.
Emily is currently pursuing a degree in Writing. She lives in Michigan with her husband and three small children. In those rare moments where she is not writing, she can be found taking pictures of her family, going on adventures around the state, knitting, or reading with a hot cup of coffee in hand. She has recently embarked on a quest to read some of the greatest literature known to man. Emily has just finished Infinite Jest, and realizes that her TBR pile is now much larger than she would like to admit.