Dialogue Writing Techniques

When I was in high school and college, I was involved in theatre. I was never pretty enough to be one of the leads. Not ugly, mind you, but not pretty, either. Plus I was quite shy. I did a lot of stage work, which my busy hands loved, but often got a bit part in the plays as well. Perhaps because I spent so much time behind the scenes, my biggest dream in high school was to write a play — a grand play, a play to be remembered. That dream has not been realized yet. But plays have mostly to do with dialogue. (Oh, okay, the stage hands have a lot to do with “setting the stage,” if you will–providing appropriate props, costumes, and sets. But let’s stick to the actor dialogue for now.)

For me, writing dialogue has never been a problem. There were the plays. But also, as a kid lying in bed at the dark of night, I used to have dialogues with people who weren’t there. You know. Coming up with that better comeback than I had during the day. Or imagining a conversation between a boy I liked and me.

One of the techniques I use today for dialogue:

Picture the face of your character. This could be done in your mind, or with a photo or magazine (what are those?) picture or an actual small figure. Decades ago, we used to play D&D, so I have over one hundred metal characters to pick from. You could also use stuffed animals. Think of the distinct characters in Winnie the Pooh. I have also pictured my characters as different animal with their traits. The large and strong, but silent and loyal elephant. The sneaky, gang-like dingo. The sparrow who is many, and argue like crazy.

Picture your characters and then put them together at a party, or going on a quest, going to algebra class together when the fire alarm goes off, etc. Even if your own story doesn’t have a scene like this. You can get to know who they are better in other situations. What are their reactions to events, to each other? What do they say?

I’ve also been known to talk into my iPhone. I put a space between the dialogue lines to distinguish the different characters, or adding the person’s name who’s being spoken to. I later cut and paste it into my story and add all the other stuff, like grammar and punctuation, like tag lines, like emotional reactions, like a view of the setting to keep the characters grounded. I also have carried a notebook and pen as I walk the house, physically writing out the dialogue or scenes. It’s that eye-hand movement and charges up to the brain thing.

Whatever technique you use, make your characters distinct.

Off to play with some D&D figures.

Stuck in the Middle of my Next Novel with Rebellious Characters

I’m stuck in the middle of my next novel. Actually, this particular one swept down on me in the middle of my last next novel, which I put on hold to write this one.

Sure, I was unusually busy last week, so just thought how much I should have been working on my WIP v.s. doing all those busy, necessary things. Today, I have no excuse (except to procrastinate a bit longer by posting a new blog post). But, stuck as I am in writing beyond chapter eleven, I couldn’t figure out what was my real hold up. I knew the plot arch; I knew the conflicts; I’d written the last two chapters, so knew the ending; I wasn’t feeling like it was the saggy middle, just the saggy author.

I’ve discovered that part of the problem of being a writer is also that you sometimes must stop and psychoanalyze yourself before moving on. So I thought and thought about it and finally discovered what my problem was: I hadn’t named all my characters.

In THE TOWN THAT DISAPPEARED, I wrote the teacher’s name as “Miss ABC” until about halfway through the novel when I gave her a real name. Now I’m halfway through this present tale and I realized that I haven’t named several of my secondary characters. For instance, I’ve been calling one of them BARREL, picturing him in my mind as a roundish guy. However, he’s with the protagonist from chapter three until the end of the book.

What I’ve come to realize what is happening with this present writers block is that my characters are rebelling on me. “Give us our names!” they shout inside my head. (Now, how is a writer supposed to write anything at all when there’s all that shouting going on? Please!) So today, instead of plunging ahead with another chapter, I’m going to have some sit-down dialogue time with my mutinying, sea-faring characters. I won’t interview them. They’re too rough and tough to tolerate that. Oh! I know! I’ll get them drunk at some port tavern and let them spill their guts and life stories out to me and see if I believe any of them. (And, yes, this is a children’s book, but the adults are, well, adults; and no, they don’t get drunk in the story.)

Like with a Native American naming ceremony, I’ve got to get t0 know my distinct characters better before I can name them. And my story won’t move on until I do name them. So please excuse me while I go belly up to the bar with my secondary characters. (hick)

Writing Dialogue — Exercise and Lessons Learned

My critique group just finished our Discussion Week on dialogue. What fun when brilliant, creative minds brainstorm and also share links and other information. One thing we didn’t do, but which we will do, maybe during NaNoWriMo, is to each have a one of our characters meet in a social setting yet to be determined, like at a table of a wedding reception. We even might meet in a chat room to do this. The thought makes my heart bump around in chuckles, especially since we write stories from picture books to contemporary MG, YA fantasy, and adult thrillers.

Things learned this week:

* Condense your dialogue. Don’t write every “um” or repeat phrases which you may do in common speech.

* Using your children to roleplay your scenes can hammer out what works and what doesn’t.

* Taking an improv class may help.

* Dialogue should sound natural so it’s not a bumpy, interrupted read, like all in a dialect. A word or two of dialect thrown in, okay to give the flavor of the speech; all the talk, no. (And personally, I’d lie to add that while I’m on this creativity-sucking medicine, the interesting part is that I am now able to complete and easily comprehend the driest of stories or entire stories written in odd-to-me dialects.)

* That said, words your characters say should be unexpected. If the reader is surprised, the reader will read on.

* Dialogue needs to move the plot forward.

* Zingers in dialogue (including dialects) should happen only occasionally, just like the fine opening line of the story.

* Rose added interesting input from an ESL course about the rhythm and tone of language.

* And finally, reaction to dialogue speaks volumes about the character and/or the plot.

Happy dialogue writing.

Ach-Man! Writing Dialogue in an Dialect

Most editors today agree that writing in an accent is a no-no. Perhaps that’s because very few writers can pull it off.

My husband and I started watching the crime TV series “Taggart,” which is the longest running TV show in Scottish history. After the first episode we watched, we turned to each other and admitted we only understood about 40% of what was said. I know it’s “English,” but besides the accent, there are also the colloquialisms to try to grasp in the millisecond before the next actor speaks. But we like crime shows. The bad guys usually get caught and then get their comeuppance at the end. Yay, justice, even if it is fictional. So we’ve kept watching the show, and after going through two seasons, I can now proudly say that I understand about 95% of the actors’ dialogue. (No wonder kids moving to the USA watch hours of “Sesame Street.” I get it now. Really, I do.)

“Taggart” is film — listening to the spoken word. But what about the written word? Mostly I would agree with editors: very few people can pull off writing in a dialect. That said, two authors come to mind, one familiar to Americans and one perhaps not so much. Harriet Beecher Stow pulled off Uncle Tom’s Cabin using a southern dialect in her dialogues. I got so lost in reading Stow’s book that I forgot where  was. And then there are the Irish folk tales by Samuel Lover, which I love. The first time I tried reading a Lover story, I only made it through the first paragraph before I found something else. And then I was sick this summer, and wanted something to distract me, so picked up his tales once more, determined to muddle my way through. Only, this time there was no muddling, only laughter as I understood it all and could hear in my mind the storyteller telling his tale.

Now, I would never attempt to write in a southern drawl or Irish accent. I don’t know them well enough. Where I grew up in Ohio, we dropped the “g” off the end of words, like eatin’, jawin’, actin’. But I don’t think that’s as interesting to read as a real dialect. Oh, we also added an ‘r” to the word wash, but were I to write, “Get ye goin’ ‘n warsh yer hands,” into a story, I’m afraid people would put down the story before the end of the first paragraph.

So, are there written dialects or accents you’ve come across? Did you read more than the first paragraph? Have you ever written in one? Would you like to try it, eh?