Say What? – Writing Great Dialog

The following was originally published in Fiction Fix Newsletter in January, 2002.


father and daughter

What are they talking about? Try making up a conversation in your head – it’s great practice.

We talk every day. We hold conversations wherever we go–at work, out shopping, or at home with our families. You could say we’re all experts at casual chatter. Why, then, do many writers find dialog so difficult to write?

I’ve always been a whiz at making characters converse, but when some friends in my writers’ group asked me how I do it I found myself stumped. How could I explain something that came naturally? It wasn’t as if I ever had to learn to write dialog–I just do it. So I started thinking about my process, trying to bring forth some of the techniques I subconsciously use and the rules I instinctively follow. This is what I came up with.

LISTEN TO PEOPLE

It’s pretty simple–listen to people when they talk. What sorts of things do they say? How do they say them? Listen for the rhythms in their speech. Listen for their vocal ticks. (Do they say your name a lot when talking to you, for instance? Or maybe they use a certain phrase repeatedly.) Replay conversations in your head during quiet times. In fact, make up conversations in your head.

AT THE MOVIES

Today’s movie audiences don’t buy into hokey dialog. The characters on the screen must speak in a way that rings true, or moviegoers will turn away. So, it only stands to reason that a great source for learning dialog would be the cinema.My brother and I are constantly quoting movie lines. Drives the rest of our family nuts. We remember dialog because we pay attention. Start listening at movies and during TV time. If you’re usually a visual person, try closing your eyes to help yourself listen. Remember the tone and style of the characters’ conversations. Continue reading

Creating Flawed Characters

old character

This man I photographed in Madison, Wisconsin would make a great character. What’s his story?

Which comes first, the character or the plot? For me, that’s an easy question to answer. There are so many characters roaming around inside my head that I would have to admit characters are my first love in fiction writing. And from my characters, my plot evolves. All I need to do is put my characters in difficult situations and watch them work their way out and—voila!—instant plot.

Even so, many writers love their characters a little too much, a writing crime of which I’ve certainly been guilty. It’s painful to watch a character you’ve developed, someone you feel a genuine fondness for, suffer. Yet your characters have to run into some trouble if you’re going to tell a good story. And above all, they must be flawed. Give your characters flaws, especially those that prevent them from reaching a pivotal goal, and watch the sparks fly. We can think of many examples of such conflicts:

  • A teacher whose timid nature prevents her from disciplining her class
  • A teenager who stutters and is so self-conscious he drives away potential friends with his caustic attitude
  • A grown man who can’t stop lying and loses friends and lovers when his lies are uncovered

All these characters will have some redeeming traits – while we don’t necessarily need to love them, we do need to identify with them somehow – but it’s the flaws that make them multi-dimensional. Continue reading