How to write dialogue – 10 easy and effective tips

boat-book - how to write dialogueThe only rule in literature is that there are no rules.

It’s fashionable to say so. But this doesn’t mean that it’s true, or that in literature anything goes.

I mean, putting together one hundred thousand words or even more in such a way that they all work smoothly together to recreate the story you have in your head is, to say the least, a notable feat.

Then if  this recreation of yours is so finely honed that you manage to totally captivate your readers’ attention, well that’s sheer magic.

And magic, you know, requires formulas, rituals, a maniacal attention for apparently insignificant details.

Yes, you guessed right. Magic does require rules. Some rules at least. Some of the time.

In fact, it is essential to understand from the get go that rules are not set in stone, and that writers should experiment with them. To discard those they feel are too cumbersome for them. To reshape, to hand-tailor some others and make them fit their stylistic needs.

1) How to write dialogue – sometimes the best answer is you don’t have to

You would assume that in fiction it’s essential to devote at least a sizable part of your stories to dialogue. After all, dialogue reads quite easily and, if well done, is quite compelling. Indeed, dialogue is a very instinctive way to show what your characters feel and think.

Yet, it is possible to find some truly great novels where dialogue is simply non existent. Lately, I’ve read a couple of such novels. I’m referring to Unborken by Laura Hillenbrand, and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind.

They’re two very different kind of novels. While the former features a real hero—Louis Zamperini–and is almost exclusively based on biographic material, the latter focuses on the fictional life of a murderer endowed with an exceptional sense of smell.

These two books should make it clear that while dialogue can be a powerful tool, it isn’t always as essential as some beginning writers might tend to believe.

Even more important: dialogue, no matter how sparkling and amusing, cannot rescue an otherwise flawed novel.

2) Maybe not too much, but always intense

The second rule about how to write dialogue is quite simple: deploy it only when you really need it and try hard to use it to always carry out at least two tasks at once. For example, to illuminate your characters personalities and move your story forward.

Once upon a time, Alexander Dumas filled his novels with long stretches of dialogue. But back then he was paid by the line, and was probably a bit too extravagant to refrain himself from gaining more and more money (Alexandre Dumas – A Great Life in Brief  by Andre Maurois.)

Most likely, if he hadn’t tried so hard to maximize his earnings he might have written even more enthralling novels.

Given that Dumas’s days are long gone (but have a look at the mess Amazon is doing with KU and the number of pages actually read), I’ll repeat myself: use dialogue only when you need it and make it count.

For example, if a detective is looking for a guy and when he knocks on this guy’s door the guy’s wife tells him her husband is away, we shouldn’t use dialogue if we’re not planning to spice it up in any way.

Version A

Lewis went to see Dennis. But he wasn’t at home. His wife told Lewis she didn’t know where he could find him. Maybe he had stopped by at Molly’s for a beer, she offered.

Version B

The door opened.
“Good evening, Mrs Claremont.”
“Good evening, Mr Lewis.”
“Is your husband at home? I need to speak to him”
“I’m sorry. He hasn’t got back yet.”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
Mrs Claremont shook her head. Then looked at her wristwatch.
“Perhaps he stopped for a beer at Molly’s.”
“A beer you say?”
“Sometimes he does that.”
“Well thanks. In any case, when he shows up… Could you please tell him to get back to me as soon as possible?”

In version A we have 34 words which do the same job the 86 words of version B do. This means that in the second version we have 52 extra words that only slow the readers down and offer nothing in exchange.

Version C

The door opened.
“Good evening, Mrs Claremont.”
“Mr Lewis…”
“Is your husband at home? I need to speak to him”
“I don’t know where he is.” Mrs Claremont combed back her hair, slowly. ”I too need to have a word with him.”
“Do you… you know where I can find him?”
She looked at her wristwatch.
“Probably he stopped for a beer at Molly’s.”
“A beer…”
Mrs Claremont looked at Lewis with large liquid eyes. “Sometimes he does that.”
“Well… When he shows up… Could you please tell him to get back to me as soon as possible?”

Here in version C we have 87 words. But in this case the dialogue hints at Mrs Claremont’s attitude both toward her husband and Mr Lewis. And Lewis’s false starts and repeated trailing off signal he is probably not unaffected by Mrs Claremont’s presence.

I repeat, dialogue for its own sake isn’t just useless, it’s deleterious to a story. Unwarranted dialogue slows a story down and dilutes it to the point it is lost in the white noise of what can only be considered background conversations.

3) Don’t copy everyday conversations

In literature, dialogue must not be realistic. It has to seem so. I mean, everyday conversations are full of repetitions, false starts, ungrammatical constructions, slang, swear words, non sequiturs, sudden changes of topics, and cliches.

Indeed, everyday conversations, when read, are awful. A real pain in the ass.

If this notwithstanding you still crave for everyday conversations to the point you want to put them into your works, you would most likely be much better off just sitting in a bar and listening to all the conversations going on around you.

In fact, this is a great way to come to understand what’s the difference between everyday conversations and dialogue in fiction.

Besides, in this way you would also avoid marring your works with an avalanche of nonsense.

If you’re not sure everyday conversations are messy, to say the least, then just go around with a voice recorder all day long. Then listen to what you’ve said and to what the people around you have said.

Transcribe it all and read it. You’ll come to see what I mean.

Otherwise, you can go and have a look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). However, bear in mind that these examples come all from fairly structured settings. Between friends, in a way more informal context, things get a lot more messy. More like this short transcript.

4) Bad characterization

Given that when people speak they use a wide variety of non standard features, to better define your characters you might be tempted to incorporate such features in your writing.

Now, characterization is important, all right. But trying too hard to characterize someone relying on things like the above mentioned repetitions, false starts, ungrammatical constructions, and so on is going to backfire on you most likely.

Have a look at this dialogue and decide for yourselves.

The door opened.
“Good evening, Mrs Claremont.”
“Mr Lewis…”
“Is your husband at home? I need to speak to him”
“I don’t know where he is.” Mrs Claremont combed back her hair, slowly. ”You know, I too need to have a word with him.”
“Oh… Do you… Do you know where I can find him?”
She looked at her wristwatch.
“Mmmh… Probably.”
“Do you?!”
“Not sure, but probably he stopped for a beer at Molly’s.”
“A beer…”
Mrs Claremont looked at Lewis with large liquid eyes. “You know, sometimes he does that.”
“Well… When he shows up… Could you please tell him to get back to me as soon as possible?”

Things are a bit too murky already, aren’t they? I mean, this focusing on fringe aspects of everyday conversations looks more like a recipe for disaster than a sensible guide on how to write dialogue.

Indeed, readers are much more intrigued by what a character has to say rather than by how he or she says it.

For example in The Secret Life of Pronouns author James W. Pennebaker points out that many successful authors fail even to characterize the way males and females really speak in real life.

Consequently, rather than striving to make your characters speak like real people do, you should focus on a very restricted set of features to characterize their speech. And you should try hard to keep such “decorations” at a minimum.

For example, sudden changes of subject do occur quite often in informal conversations. But if you started using it over and over, readers would be soon fed up with this sort of realism and would put down your book for something probably less realistic but much more enjoyable.

We live immersed in reality and read books to make sense of it, not the other way around.

5) Dialogue tags

The only tags you really require are a couple. Say and ask, like in:

“Time’s up,” he said.
The guard snorted. “Already?” he asked

“Time’s up,” he boomed.
The guard grimaced. “Already?” he growled.

I don’t know about you, but I would always choose the first version over the second. One hundred times over.

However, if handled with care, also other tags can be used. Sparingly. Very sparingly.

6) How to write dialogue? Technicalities

Well, just have a look at this short passage. That’s pretty much everything you need to know.

“It was your wife,” the man said.
“But ,” Henry replied, “are you absolutely sure of what you saw?”
The man nodded. Then smiled a sad smile. “I’ve known her for a long time.”

7) Pacing

Dialogue can also be used to adjust the speed at which your story moves. Use it to speed things up. Use exposition instead to slow everything down.

Remember also that dialogue in itself isn’t a monolith. You can have clipped, almost convulsive lines just as well as articulate and ponderous ones. Besides, it’s this kind of characterization the one which works best.

8) Lecturing? No thanks

Dialogue is like a dance. Each dancer is essential. And each should respect the space of the others.

This means you should avoid having a character going on and on for a whole page lecturing the other characters and the readers.

So if you really have to deliver a sort of  lecture, turn it into a dance. And turn the single steps of this dance into questions and answers.

Also, make sure you let some aspects of what you’re exposing a bit in the shadows. To create curiosity, and to mimic what real people often do. That’s to say they forget things. They consider them a given.

Ok. Ok. I know I just said character should collaborate, like in a dance. But this doesn’t mean that they never cut others or try to speak on for as long as possible. Just make sure you keep all the fighting for the floor functional to the story.

9) A rose by any other name

Dialogue should always present subtext. In fact, just as in real life the most innocent questions can hide poisonous thorns, the same goes for fiction.

Just think of such an apparently innocent question like: “Do you like my new dress?”
Once, I said I didn’t. And if I’m here today to say so to you is only thanks to sixteen operations and seven years of rehab.

Dialogue seems easy and instinctual, but also pressing the button of a detonator seems a piece of cake. Until you realize it is you who is sitting on dynamite.

10) Unreliability

Finally you should use dialogue to make your story resonate with emotions. Raw, wild emotions. Subtle, almost subdued emotions as well. In fact, when characters speak to each other they often lie, cheat, hide information, dissimulate their real intentions. You know what I mean here.

For example, nobody likes the idea of admitting they are cowards. Or that they have a daughter they don’t have spoken to for the last eight years.

Because even if truth will make you free it often hurts.

Conlusion

In my opinion, how to write dialogue in fiction is a universe within a universe. If you look at the amount of things you have to learn this might look like a depressing statement.

But for any avid reader and any serious writer this is instead a wonderful thing. In fact, as a writer you can go on experimenting and learning indefinitively.

Instead, as a reader you can be sure that, no matter how many novels you’ve already read, you’re gong to find many more brimming with engrossing dialogue.

By the way, do you have some books you particularly love? Especially for their dialogues? Stop by and drop a comment to let me know.


Pictures by Kartal8167 via pixabay

Writers: how to put evolution and culture to good use

cheetah - Writers: how to put evolution and culture to good useEvolution, plain and simple

Think of a gazelle. It relies on its speed to flee predators. Just as a lion relies on secrecy to get as close as possible to its prey and hunt it down.

In fact, although several predators can run faster than a gazelle, they can do so only over extremely short distances.

If, for some glitch in the clockwork of evolution, a gazelle sat perfectly still in plain sight hoping to be overlooked by a predator… Well, that gazelle would most likely be the first and the last of its line.

In fact, stillness is only one ingredient of the complex cocktail required for near perfect camouflage.

From what I just exposed it seems quite obvious that in nature animals, insects, and plants all play on their respective strengths to keep safe and well. For sure, no gazelle has ever started to train to fight back a predator.

Just imagine: I’m fed up with those fucking lions. Let’s see what happens if I start kicking their asses.. Sure, dream on.angry cat - writersThe reason such a kicking never takes place is simple. Evolution is a sort of trial and error process which takes an exceedingly long time.

So, even if over million of years of evolution a gazelle might develop claws, long canines, and a thicker skin, right now no gazelle can afford to experiment with fighting tactics.

At least, not if it isn’t contemplating suicide.

Culture – evolution spurred by language

We humans can communicate to each other with a degree of complexity that has no equivalent in the rest of the natural kingdom.

This language of ours has made the emergence of culture possible. And culture in turn, working like a sort of external DNA to which we all can draw, has granted us the opportunity to learn a vast array of new ideas and, in case we decide to, modify our behaviors accordingly.

It is therefore correct to say that thanks to language we can evolve, as a manner of speaking, over the course of our life. We no longer need to wait eons. Indeed, we can even learn how to do things we are not even that good at to start with.

Just think of a child reared without any meaningful contact with language and, consequently not having full access to culture, and compare her with a child enjoying instead of a normal childhood.

I think the case of Genie is emblematic–as it is also apparent that researchers are a bit too often only interested in the subject of their research and don’t care that much about the well being of the people they are studying.

In any case, language is so powerful that even though from a purely biological point of view we all remain extremely similar one another, from the point of view of what we can do and what we can think the differences can be jaw-dropping.

Van-Gogh

Cypresses by Vincent Van Gogh via Wikipedia

For example, we have athletes running a marathon in two hours, and divers able to hold their breath for as long as 20 minutes. Besides, just imagine how different the world can appear to the eyes of an astrophysics with respect to a philosopher or a cook or a painter.

How writers can make use of culture and evolution

This ductility can be empowering, but it can also be a bit too inebriating. I mean, it could lead us to believe that, provided we put in the right amount of effort, we can do just everything.

Alas, this isn’t the whole truth. In fact, even if it’s true that if we work hard we can improve in any field we decide to, our biology, our natural inclinations, and who knows what else, still define us.

This means that if I work hard to improve my time in the 100-meters dash I’m surely going to notice some progress. But if my twitching fibers are for the most part red ones, the slow twitching ones, I would still find it impossible to win an Olympic gold against athletes who have worked as hard as me but are naturally endowed with white fast-twitching fibers.

For writers the same principle applies. While there’s no denying that the more writers write the better they get, it’s also true that, to quote Stephen King, “it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer.” So if  one hasn’t it in himself, then he should maybe think of some alternative career.

In fact, efforts, strenuous efforts, should pay off in clearly perceivable ways, if one is to keep going for a long time.

For example, writers should be able to clearly notice how much their style has improved over the last year. Or how much easier it is for them to come up with a neater first draft. They should feel that things keep improving, evolving, at least at a reasonable pace.

This evolutive principle also applies to all those writers who can already write damn well. I mean, instead of trying hard to exclusively overcome those parts of the writing process in which they show some weaknesses, they should work just as hard on honing their strengths.

In fact, keeping on improving at what we already do quite well is a great way to keep at bay our doubts, and to boost our self-esteem. It is in short a great way to metaphorically recharge our mental batteries.

In this way, when we begin to work also on those areas of our writing that aren’t our forte–to make an understatement–we are less susceptible to feel disheartened and lose our drive.

I mean, after all we already know we are quite good, we just want to become even… gooder.

Okay. Okay. Maybe it’s time I call it a day. No more evolution for me today. Only rest, some good reading, and a friendly ear to blab to.


Images: Vincent Van Gogh – Sponchia – ClkerFreeVectorImages

 

What is a premise and why is it so important?

path - what is a premise

Picture by Unsplash

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This is Newton’s third law. Probably the easiest to remember.

It can work quite well to predict how things happen on an everyday level, but it’s just one of the many ways we can look at the universe and how it works.

Indeed, if the cause and effect principle were the only one in place, then every action we have ever taken and we’ll ever take would already have been coded into the first fragment of matter when the universe first blew into existence—that is, if it really blew into existence with a Big Bang.

The word for this concept, for this cause and effect never ending chain, is determinism or causal determinism. This position is unsettling to say the least. But from a purely logical point of view it could be absolutely true.

Instead, for those who believe in God, such a scaring thought vanishes into thin air. Because God granted us free will, the gift of choosing autonomously how to live our lives.

Besides, from this point of view, our minds are too primitive to grasp the whole design of creation. We can only catch some glimpses from time to time if we’re lucky.

I don’t want to put forward any particular way of looking at the world around us. I believe that is a very personal choice. In some cases, quite a troubled one.

Just have a look at these two books by Sam Harris and Julian Baggini about the issue of free will to notice how much their positions differ.

free will -what is a premise

However, after thousands and thousands of years of so called civilization, we’re still debating about these fundamental questions.

This is so for a very simple reason. In fact, even if we can look at life from many different angles, it’s undeniable that it is incredibly complex.

There are so many processes all going on at the same moment, so many different forces at play, that for most of the time it’s impossible for us to notice any meaningful pattern in what surrounds us, in what happens to us, even in what is inside our head.

As a matter of fact, in Incognito, Eagleman claims that our actions and decisions are the result of deep structures of our brain. Structures we are mostly unaware of. So much so that the conscious mind is “like a stowaway on a transatlantic steam ship, taking credit for the journey without acknowledging the massive engineering underfoot.”

What is a premise in the universe of literature?

Literature, or fiction—call it the way you prefer—is nothing else than one of the innumerable and mirable attempts we humans devised to make sense of the baffling nature of the universe as we know it.

This is why in fiction such things like form and structure are so important. Because we don’t need a new book mimicking nature at its rawest.possibility - what is a premise

I mean, such a book would be infinitely vast, intricate and obscure. So vast and intricate and so obscure that, indeed, anyone reading it could, depending on their personal inclinations, read whatever message they want to.

In such a book we would find black holes, gods, multiverses, both witches and saints burnt at the stake, We would find germs and viruses and radiations. We would also find serial killers and prison camps, and Madre Teresa and Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.

Now, I don’t think we really need a new universe, be it in the form of a book or a computer, like some virtual reality gurus would like us to believe.

On the contrary, we need books showing a tight structure. Books that present a well defined problem and try to solve or at least face it in a creative and meaningful way.

This is why as writers we must work hard to make sure our novels can be described, in terms of premise, in just a couple of lines.

  • Too much love can lead to murder if you cannot control your jealousy
  • Lust can be fatal if you’re a virgin in a very morigerate community
  • Violence can make you a rich man if you have nothing to lose

This is not to banalize novels or to discount the intelligence of readers. More simply, given that it can represent only a very narrow slice of reality, a novel has to be organized in such a way that all the elements in it are essential and work together to create a whole that is more powerful and effective than the mere sum of its parts.

In short, we could think of a book like a perfect example of minimalism. It focuses only on the essential. It rearranges events and places to make sure the core of the story can show through at full blast.

This is also why writers should always keep in mind what the premise of the story they are writing is. In fact, a premise, once accurately defined, is invaluable when it comes the moment of editing.

I mean, if we examine our first draft through the lens of the premise, we are immediately aware of the parts which don’t belong to the story we want to tell. Besides, once we’re done with the cuts, we’ll be also able to more easily notice gaps in the our story. Gaps that need to be filled to fulfill the premise as best as possible.

Here I’m speaking of premise, but we have to bear in mind that this is just another name for theme, root idea, subject and many other names. The point we want to make, that is our premise.

Another thing to remember is that in fiction a premise doesn’t need to be an absolute truth. In fact, a premise can be true only for the story we are writing.

For example, loyalty of one’s family can lead to many different outcomes. And even though some of them might seem far fetched to say the least, as long as the story works to support the premise everything is fine.

In general, we have one premise for one novel. But, to be more precise, we should have a premise for each story. In fact, if a novel is made up of the stories of many different characters, each subplot must have its own premise.

Finally, we should work hard to make sure our premise is as detailed and concrete as possible. In fact, we humans tend to tune out as soon as we begin to read mumble jumble shit like: prolonged sleep deprivation could induce drastic modifications in the character of the subjects.

Instead, if we read that a mysterious epidemics of Insomnia turns people into bloodthirsty lunatics, we are more likely to remind it and to wonder about the causes of such a terrible outbreak.

A last word

As we have seen a premise is a handy tool we can use to make sure we don’t digress. Not too much at least.

However, I must admit that as a reader I am more than willing to read some digressions. I mean, if the writer whose novel I’m reading is surefooted and his style is lively, I can read on for quite a while about backstory and many other things not really related to the main story.

But this is just my personal taste. And only for very particular cases. Indeed, to be honest, when I write I try hard to keep as much as possible close to the premise, to the point I want to make.

Because—do you have ever noticed?—great books are those we feel they are too short, never those we put down because overwhelmed by the author’s literary elephantiasis.


 

Picture by Unsplash via Pixabay.com