It’s not what you say. It’s the way you say it.
by Jeff Bowles
I love good dialogue. In fact, it may be my favorite thing about reading a book or watching a truly excellent film. Many serious writers will tell you that it’s an important tool in the author’s toolkit, but that it is by no means the most essential. I respectfully disagree. I say good dialogue can elevate your writing like nothing else. After all, it’s not what you say. It’s the way you say it.
Looking back, I realize I’ve always been polishing up my ability to generate interesting, gripping, or just plain funny dialogue. I self-studied writers and filmmakers who made it a priority in their storytelling, folks like Douglass Adams, Elmore Leonard, and Quentin Tarantino. I read a lot of Marvel and DC comic books, which as you may or may not know, are almost completely composed of dialogue. I don’t know why it mattered so much to me, but I absolutely lit up whenever characters interacted with each other in snappy and surprising ways. I still light up when I read, see, or hear the good stuff, and maybe I can’t speak for everyone on this, but when was the last time you saw a well-produced Shakespeare production and thought to yourself, Gosh, that guy just couldn’t write people to save his life?
That’s the key. People live in dialogue. Not in long winded descriptions or deep internal navel gazing. Characters come to life in their interactions with each other. You could say it’s the one thing that makes them leap off the page. It’s how people work in real life, too. Which is to say, without conversation, people tend not to work at all. Sit together with someone in an awkward silence long enough and you’ll know exactly what I mean.
When it comes to short stories and novels, good dialogue is essential. Sure, you’re a master of scene setting and description, but do all your characters seem to communicate like wooden B-movie stereotypes? Or another problem many writers have, have you noticed you’re timid on engaging your readers with dialogue, and so you tend to rely on big blocks of text to get your message across? Scene setting, subtle character development, basic point-to-point plotting, visceral sense engagement and description, and basic personal style may be the rhythm of the music we call fiction, but truly inspiring dialogue is quite essentially the melody.
If you think about it, you don’t even really know characters until they open their mouths. If you struggle with dialogue, or if you’re just looking to brush up on the basics, there are a few exercises you can employ. One, of course, is to go to a public place and listen to people converse in real time. Admittedly, not really a viable option during Coronavirus lockdown, but you can easily work this exercise from the comfort of your own home. Tune into some reality TV, or simply listen to the conversations your family have. Write down every word verbatim, if you can. You’ll notice that people tend to speak in a pretty roundabout way, with lots of umms and starts and stops thrown in the mix.
Good dialogue should contain elements of realistic conversation, but you also need to focus it like a laser beam. If you were to write a scene in which people talk like they do in real life, you’d end up with so many pauses, ellipses, and false starts it’d drive your readers nuts.
“Hi, Jim, how’d work go?”
“Oh, you know, I don’t know … the boss, he’s real … umm … I don’t know, he’s real pushy when it comes to … when it comes to, uh … oh, I don’t know”
Doesn’t really flow all that well, does it? May I present the alternative that what you’re going for with good character interactions isn’t so much realism as pointed randomness. That is to say, make an effort to produce dialogue that cracks like a whip, pops and snaps like lightning. Only make sure also that it’s random enough no one can accuse you of stiffly holding your reader’s hand.
“Hi, Jim, how’d work go?”
“Ah, you know, the boss … ever get the feeling some people’s neckties are on too tight?”
“Uh-oh. I know that tone. He got pushy again, didn’t he?”
“Pushy? I haven’t slept in weeks. Pretty sure I had a waking dream while filing a client’s paperwork today. By the way, if the office calls asking why I’ve suggested one Dana Baker should just hit the clown on the nose and fly away on his trusted dragon, I’m not in.”
Also, don’t be afraid to surprise yourself. If you’re surprised by your writing, you can guarantee your readers will be, too. Zig instead of zag when you approach character interactions. Also, try producing more dialogue on the page than you’re used to. A lot of readers just kind of sift through text blocks anyway. They consider the dialogue the real meaty parts. Sad, but I think it is true. Readers are less interested in what’s happening now than in what happens next. You can fuel that burning need to find out.
Here’s something else you may not have considered. The first true novel written in the English language was likely published sometime in the 16th century, or thereabouts. A couple centuries later in the Victorian era, the novel had exploded in popularity, and that period is still a gold mine as far as writers who produced work we’re reading to this day. In all the time since, our concept of good narrative fiction has gotten lighter, not heavier.
Have you ever been chewing your way through a Victorian novel and thought to yourself, Why’s it taking this lady so long to get out of her house? Well, it’s because back then, the form and function of the novel was to in some fashion reproduce life. Entertainment is its form and function in the year 2020, because these days authors have to compete with film, television, internet memes, video games, just about anything that’s loud, fast, and gets its point across in seconds flat.
Unfortunately, you are therefore also competing with shortened attention spans across the globe. Do yourself a favor, don’t shirk your duty to write super fun, super engaging dialogue. It can save even the dullest story. Well, maybe not the dullest. Need something more specific? Well, for one, make sure all your dialogue tags (or at least most of them) are of the simple, he said, she said variety. Very few of these said-bookisms you’ve heard so much about.
Also, try bouncing back and forth between characters like they’re playing verbal tennis. Keep each line short and snappy; play a game of hot potato. And don’t forget to edit like crazy when you’re done. If you’re not removing bulk between those quote marks, you’re doing it all wrong. Even in my short examples above, I went back in and cut the detritus. Because good dialogue should flow, not lay inert like a dead body on some old science fiction TV show.
Similarly, characters should all sound distinct from one another. Don’t give them so many affectations they no longer sound realistic, but look, not everyone talks the same, do we? We have accents and ticks and odd regional slang we depend on. Try speaking your dialogue aloud as you’re writing it. Kind of helps to clear out the mental cobwebs. If you can hear it from your own mouth, and it sounds pretty good to you, odds are it’ll work well enough on the page.
The truth is, most readers depend on good dialogue to communicate story. You can build or establish character relationships with it, key in on essential plot points, foreshadow upcoming events, or just plain have fun and make people laugh. One more time, dialogue is the melody of this music we call storytelling. So make sure yours is enjoyable to listen to. Speech, language, it’s the engine that drives everything we do. It binds us together, tears us apart, and isn’t that the essence of story?
If you’re struggling with this, the old adage, practice makes perfect, is as always the essential factor. You’ll thank me once you’ve mastered this new superpower, and your readers will thank you. Is it possible to overdo it? Certainly. But wouldn’t you rather read a beautiful mess that sounds like Mozart rather than racoons rattling around in your trash cans late at night?
Heh. That’s a funny line. Maybe I should jot it down and have one of my characters say it someday. Until next time, everybody. Wooden conversation is as wooden conversation does.
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
A writer should show the reader, rather than tell the reader. Help them form a mental picture in their minds. Put them into the story. How many times have we all been told this? Finding a balance between showing and telling is a hard thing to do, but to be a good writer we must strive to achieve that balance.
I’m a person who likes to think big, and in my writing it’s no different. As many of you know, in graduate school, my genre fiction thesis project was the first book in my Playground for the Gods science fantasy series, In the Beginning. But, what you may not know is that my original thesis proposal was for what turned out to be the third book, only in my mind it was the only book and it spans back beyond prehistoric time. While preparing my thesis proposal the feedback that I recieved from instructors and cohorts time and again, was that my proposal would require too much exposition unless I created an epic tomb of unfathomable porportions, way beyond the scope of my thesis requirements, and impossible to complete in the time allowed.
The main problem was that there was a lot of background that I felt the reader needed to understand where the character was coming from in the now of the story. Most of that information was being communicated to my readers through exposition. The story wasn’t taking them back to relive the scene, it was simply filling them in on what they needed to know, because the story I wanted to tell spanned over billions of years. That’s a lot of backstory. That’s exposition.
Robin Conley saw a similar problem in her review of the movie Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, “Almost all of these really big elements deserved a proper set up because they are major story parts that will potentially carry over… The long exposition and set up in the film makes the story drag and hard to stay involved, no matter how many interesting elements there are.” Robin explains what exposition does and why we don’t want too much of it. Too much exposition is like coming in in the middle of a film you’ve already seen, and filling in other viewers on what is happening, instead of letting them watch the film and figure it out for themselves.
That was the problem with my PfG story – way too much exposition. It happens all the time. And it’s easy to overlook it when you’re the author. Which is exactly what I had done with my thesis. I had that story outlined and plotted, but I kept having to stop and fill in the background details with exposition. And exposition tells your readers something, but it doesn’t provide a mental image for them. It doesn’t pulace them in the scene. Action and dialog accomplish those tasks quite well. And my cohorts and instructors were right, although at the time, I didn’t want to believe them.
My solution was to turn my story into a four part series. Hence the Playground for the Gods series was born. All that backstory, which had come out mostly in exposition, became a story of its own, one that I could show my readers, rather than telling them about it. My original story idea will eventually be book three, and although I did have to write the whole first book instead of the story I set out to tell for my thesis, that story outline is still waiting for me to put it in story form.
Of course, that isn’t the only way to solve problems of exposition, but this can be applied without creating entire novels. You simply expand on some scenes to eliminate exposition and create a longer story, chosing those scenes that are most vital to the story. You can also chose to leave certain information out, thus eliminating exposition without lengthening, and perhaps even shortening your story. It is a delicate balance, but as the writer, you must do what the story needs to achieve it. What works for one story may not necessarily be the answer for another.
So, how much exposition is too much? That’s a very subjective question, but generally speaking, if you’re telling your reader what happened, with a few lines of glib dialog thrown in here or there, then you have too much exposition. Your reader wants to get lost in the book, and for that, they need a story that is told in such a way that they feel like they are there.
We’ve all read stories like that. For me, it’s Anne Rice. I may have never been to New Orleans, but after reading some of her books, I feel like the Garden District and the French Quarter are old frieinds. I can smell the magnolia blossoms, and see the old plantation houses as if I’d been there. That’s the kind of story we, as authors, strive to write, regardless of the genre we write in. It’s the kind of story that has the perfect balance, using exposition only when absolutely necessary to fill in details, providing plenty of action and dialog to fill in the rest. It’s a delicate balance, but one we must all strive for.
Until next time, Happy Writing!
Like this post? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress.
This is the longest book review I have ever written. This book was so packed full of useful information for rising authors and screenwriters that I felt I needed to cover it all. If you are an upcoming horror author or screenwriter, trying to figure out how to get a foot in the door or where to start in the matter of launching your career, Horror 101: The Way Forward offers “career advice by seasoned professionals”. Different writers will find different essays useful, so I’m giving you a rundown on all the informative essays included.
Compiled by Crystal Lake Publishing, this collection of essays has something for every writer. The anthology features quotes from the masters such as Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jack London, Clive Barker, H.P.Lovecraft, Edgar Allen Poe and many others. Advice from professional writers and editors covers all aspects of the horror writing business, and the business of writing, in general. From submitting your work, to marketing and promotion, to self-publishing and building your writing business, to crafting your work and the writing process.
The answers to many questions on the topic of submissions and all other aspects of writing as a business are found within its pages. Not getting positive response from your queries? First read Rejection Letters – How to Write and Respond to Them by award winning author Jason Bark, which offers an attempt to write a rejection letter that doesn’t sting, (at least, not so much). Then, flip to Seven Signs that Make Agents and Editors say “Yes!” to learn what agents and editors look for. Buttoning Up Before Dinner by horror author Gary Fry also offers advice to put you in the good graces of publishers and editors and create well-written stories.
Unsure how to submit your work? Submitting Your Work: Read the F*****g Guidelines by freelance writer and editor John Kenny offers tips for making a professional submission from an editor’s perspective. And What a Short Story Editor Does by horror, fantasy and science fiction editor Ellen Dallow explains the responsibilities of short story editor.
Looking for sound career advice? Be the Writer You Want to Be by television writer and novelist, Steven Savile recycles the best writing advice the author was ever given. The Five Laws of Arzen by award winning dark fiction author Michael A. Arzen offers hints to help you survive a writing career. How to Fail as an Artist in Ten Easy Steps: A Rough List Off the Top of My Head, by Confirmed Failure… by horror author John Palisano provides a reverse list of things you should do to be a successful writer.
Wondering if you need an agent to get your work in front of editors and publishers? Do You Need an Agent? by author Eric S. Brown is a discussion about the need, (or not), for an agent and relates the personal experience of how the author became successful without one. Also included are essays on building your writing business in Balancing Art and Commerce by author and screenwriter Taylor Grant , offering a look at various mediums one can write in and earn a living & advice in the business of writing. There are even essays offered on the lucrative business of ghostwriting, with a personal experience as a ghostwriter shared by dark fiction author Blaze McRob, and Ghostwriting: You Can’t Write it if You Can’t See It by award winning author Thomas Smith instructs on how to step into the author’s shoes and write like them.
If you are hoping to find some help muddling through the vast world of marketing and promotion, The Year After Publication by horror & thriller novelist Rena Mason offers an account of what to expect once you publish your first book and a walk through the exhaustive process of book marketing. How to be Your Own Agent, Whether You Have One or Not by horror writer, editor and publisher Joe Mynhardt offers tips for marketing your stories and yourself. Reviewing by founder of Ginger Nuts of Horror, (one of the most viewed resources in horror fiction), Jim McLeod discusses getting your book in the review pile & what the writer should do while awaiting publication of the review.
If you’ve not attended a conference or convention before, Pitch to Impress: How to Stand Out From the Convention Crowd by editor R.J. Cavender provides a guide to making a pitch that will snag agents’ and publishers’ attention. Tips for networking at conferences are offered by dark fiction author Tim Waggoner in You Better (Net)Work, and Networking at Conventions by Bram Stoker Award winning author Lucy A. Synder offers a look at the benefits conventions have to offer and a breakdown on some of the major ones for horror writers.
There is a plethora of advice offered on publishing, including a comparison of traditional publishing vs. digital publishing in Weighing Up Traditional Publishing and Ebook Publishing by award winning author Robert W. Walker; Publishing by editor and publisher Simon Marshall-Jones compares publishing in the digital arena with the way it was done in the past & how to become an independent publisher; and Glenn Rolle Toes the Line with Samhain Horror Head Hancho, Don D. Auria by Glenn Rolle with Interview that maps Auria’s rise to the top.
The arena of self-publishing is also explored in Make Your Own Dreams by horror and suspense novelist Iain Rob Wright. Besides being a plug for self-publishing’s evening of the playing table. It relates personal experience and advice for self-publishing, walking us through the self-publishing process. Self-Publishing: Thumb on the Button by author Kenneth W. Cain gives a list of things to think about before you choose to self-publish.
Also included are essays on the different mediums for horror: Poetry and Horror by Blaze McRob, and Horror for Kids: Not Child’s Play by novelist Francois Bloemhof offers guidelines for writing horror for youth. Several essays on comics and screenwriting, (one of the biggest outlets of horror today), are also included.
Horror Comics – How to Write Gory Scripts for Gruesome Artists by novelist Jasper Bark discusses the craft of writing horror comics and the relationship between writer and artist. Some Thoughts on My Meandering Within the World of Dark and Horror Art by artist Niall Parkinson offers thoughts on creating dark and horror art. So You Want to Write Comic Books… by novelist C.E.L. Welsh discusses what goes into the making of a comic book.
From Pros to Scripts by author and screenwriter Shane McKenzie talks about the many challenges of screenwriting. Writing about Films and For Film by award winning writer, editor and screenwriter Paul Kane gives the story of the author’s rise to success and tips for learning the lingo of the business. Screamplays! Writing the Horror Film by award winning author and screenwriter Lisa Morton offers the basics of screenwriting, description and dialog, and tips for getting your screenplay made into a movie. Screenplay Writing: The First Cut is the Deepest by author, director and editor Dean M. Dinkel recaps of the author’s experience at the Cannes Film Festival.
Essays on writing a digital world include Running a Webserial, or How to Lose Your Mind, One Week at a Time by Southern author Tonia Brown, providing a brief history of serials and a rundown of what goes into running one on the web; Friendship, Writing, and the Internet by Bram Stoker Award winning novelist Weston Ochse with reflections on online connections with like-minded writers, and Audiobooks: Your Words to Their Ears by horror novelist Chet Williamson discusses what it takes to create and audiobook and what to expect from the effort.
Of course, there is also plenty of advice on crafting a quality story. What is Horror? by author and novelist Graham Masterson offers general writing advice which could be applied to any genre and instructs on how to push your writing to the edge. The Journey of “Rudy Jenkins Buries His Fears” by author Richard Thomas takes us on a walk through of the writing, editing and submissions process of a story. Writing Short Fiction by horror and thriller novelist Joan De La Haye offers tips to tighten your writing and move the story forward, and discusses where to look to sell your story and how to choose where to submit. Ten Short Story Endings to Avoid by Scottish horror novelist William Meikle supplies a valuable list, if you want to avoid having readers feel cheated. From Reader to Writer: Finding Inspiration by publishing and editing consultant Emma Audsley offers advise for attacking the blank page. Writing Exercises by horror writer Ben Eads provides exercises in description and dialogue. Writer’s Block by short fiction writer and novelist Mark West discusses how to keep the creative juices flowing. Editing and revision are covered with Editing and Proofreading by author and editor Diane Parking presents good reasons not to send out a first draft, and How to Dismember Your Darlings – Editing Your Own Work by Jasper Bark gives a brief guide on how to self-edit.
A few essays outline the needs of a writer and suggestions on how to meet them. Filthy Habits – Writing and Routine by Jasper Bark offers a look at the benefits of creating a daily writing routine. A Room of One’s Own – the Lonely Path of a Writer by horror and fantasy writer V. H. Leslie discusses the need for solitude and space to write in. Writing Aloud by screenwriter and author Lawrence Santoro outlines the benefits of reading aloud as a part of the writing process.
Also included are Partners in the Fantastic: The Pros and Cons of Collaborations by novelist Michael McCarty, which looks at the views of various authors on collaborations, and Writing the Series by series author Armand Rosamilia, which explains why Rosamilia writes series.
Several essays offer advice specific to writing in the horror genre. Making Contact by award winning novelist Jack Ketchum discusses how to turn what you know into a horror show. Bitten by the Horror Bug by horror author and screenwriter Edward Lee looks at what motivates us to write horror. Reader Beware by author Siobhan McKinney explores the role fear plays in horror. Bringing the Zombie to Life by author Harry Shannon maps out four components of a good zombie story. The Horror Writers’ Association – The Genres Essential Ingredient by author and President of the Horror Writers’ Association (HWA), Rocky Wood gives a rundown on the HWA.
What’s the Matter With Splatter? by horror writer and Vice-President of the AHWA, Daniel I. Russell discusses the use of blood, gore and splatter in horror fiction or screenwriting, gives tips on how to use it to gain the desired effect, and discusses why some gore doesn’t get a second thought. Avoiding What’s Been Done to Death by British horror writer Ramsay Campbell defines good horror fiction & emphasizes originality. The (Extremely) Short Guide to Writing Horror by dark fiction author Tim Waggoner offers an introduction to writing horror, including techniques and brief definitions, and a list of good resources for horror writers. Growing Ideas by horror writer Gary McMahon offers a look into the author’s writing process. Writing Horror: 12 Tips on Making a Career of It by horror novelist Steve Rasnic Tem instructs on building your own writer’s toolbox and advice for entering the profession of writing horror. The Cheesy Trunk of Horror by international best selling author Scott Nicholson provides a look at both writer and reader perspectives on horror and dark fiction. Class: Vaginas in Horror by science fiction, urban fantasy and horror novelist Theresa Derwin offers an overview of women in the horror industry. And the afterward by Crystal Lake Publishing’s editor, Joe Mynhardt, includes his own advice for writing horror.
Horror 101: The Way Forward is based on the sound advice of seasoned professionals that is useful to horror writers in any stage of their careers. I recommend it with four quills for anyone who wants to write horror in either fiction or screenwriting.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs at no charge. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.
A good way to learn to write good dialog is to become an observer of people, watching and listening to the conversations around you when in public. You must both watch and listen because dialog doesn’t come just in words. Dialog also contains subtext. You know, body language, tone of voice, etc… You can have whole scenes where no words are spoken, yet a conversation occurs between two people in the subtext of their body language. Everyone in the real world talks in subtext. If you want to have believable dialog for your characters, they must talk with subtext, too.
Whether you’re an author or a screenwriter, it’s an important concept to master. Subtext is the message that lies beneath the message. It’s what people, or characters, are really saying. It is indicated in actions, movements, change in pitch of the voice. A character may say, “I’m happy for you”, but if it were said through gritted teeth, the reader may get the idea that there’s some underlying resentment with the characters words, lending a very different meaning to the scene. The same dialog would take on a whole other meaning, that the words are not spoken sincerely, if the character rolls her eyes as she says it.
We humans are funny creatures. Many of us have some type of mental block that prevents us from saying what we mean outright. It may be the fatal flaw of mankind in the communication realm, although I suspect it may be easier to speak honestly in the digital world, where you talk with people without being face to face. Regardless, if you want your characters’ dialogue to be believable,they will have to speak in subtexts, offering readers the subtle clues necessary to figure out what is really going on.
“Don’t tell me to calm down,” Karen said, tapping her newly painted nails on the table top. “I’m perfectly calm.”
What can you tell from the dialog above? The character says she’s not upset, but do you think she is? Rather you get the idea that she is upset from the tapping of her nails on the table, which is not a calm behavior, even though her words claim different.
The example above is pretty clear for illustration purposes. In real life, and in good fiction, it’s not always so easy to discern between words and actions. As authors, we must offer good clues, in the form of subtext, so readers can see the whole picture we’re trying to paint with our words. You see what I mean?
If your character is angry, you might have him clench his fists or stomp his foot. If the scene is a breakup, your character may hold back her tears and swallow the lump in her throat to avoid revealing how much she is really hurting. Or maybe she is trembling although trying to appear brave to her friends.
It’s the way real people talk. It’s the way our characters need to talk if we want our dialogue to be convincing. In many cases, the old adage is true, especially in fiction and screenwriting- “Actions speak louder than words.”
Like this post? Subscribe to email to receive notification to your inbox each time a new post is made.