Thursday, March 07, 2013

Character conversations

Author Amber Stockton
When I first began writing, I thought I’d be better suited to screenwriting, as it didn’t require so much description. Conversation has never been a problem for me—I’m outgoing and I love people.

It didn’t take me long to realize I could blend my love of dialogue with the scenes happening around the conversation for a total experience. Writing realistic dialogue doesn’t come easily to everyone, but it’s worth the effort. Nothing pulls the reader out of a story faster than bad dialogue.

First of all, familiarize yourself with these five things to avoid, then I’ll share the 10 Ways Dialogue Defines Characters.

Five errors to avoid

Before you can write excellent dialogue, learn how to avoid these five key components:
  1. Stilted language: Your character’s words don’t sound like natural speech.
  2. Filler: Conversations that don’t move the story along or shed any light on your characters.
  3. Exposition: Characters who wax philosophic on the plot issues or repeat something for the readers’ sake.
  4. Naming: Characters who repeatedly use the name of other character’s in the scene to identify them.
  5. Dialogue tags: Overuse of such tags as exclaimed, cried, mumbled, whispered, etc. For most uses, the largely invisible said is the most appropriate choice.
Each of those five can kill your dialogue, but worse, bore your reader. Alfred Hitchcock once said a good story was “life, with the dull parts taken out.” Keep this in mind as you revise dialogue.

10 tips for defining your characters by dialogue

  1. Observe real people and real conversations. You can discover creative and fascinating dialogue by listening to how people really talk. Skip over the distracting parts (um, like, y’now) and get to the meat. When you apply those styles to your characters, you’ll be surprised at how naturally they give away integral components of their personalities and lives.
  2. Apply limits. Keep the interchanges to one thought per character per dialogue segment. Any more and you risk impeding the flow of your story. Caveat: If your character happens to be a rambler, then let that person go from thought to thought. But, otherwise, keep it simple.
  3. Create differences. Make certain your characters use different styles, patterns, and word choices. Read a sequence of lines out loud. If you can’t tell your characters apart by dialogue, your readers won’t be able to either.
  4. Vary the dialogue with action. Writers often use too many dialogue tags—this will pull the reader out of your story. Instead, try using character or action tags to break up the stream of conversation. Describe gestures, facial expressions, movements, or even inner thoughts. These can offer great insight into a character’s thoughts and personality.
  5. Let your characters talk freely. When it feels like a character is talking directly to the reader, saying or explaining something simply for the reader’s sake, they get bored. Assume your reader is intelligent and will infer what’s necessary from the story. If you’ve done it right, you won’t have to explain, and the reader will be pulled along on the wave of the conversation.
  6. Do your research. Don’t use styles, words, grammar, and phrases that don’t fit with the setting or time period you’ve established. Get to know your characters well. Interview them to learn all about them. Know the language of the setting and get it right. On the other hand, avoid stereotypes.
  7. Watch your tone. Characters are like people. You wouldn’t speak to a stranger in the same way you’d speak to a friend or loved one. Neither would your characters. Be careful what attitudes you convey through dialogue. You can show feelings for people when you use the right tone and words.
  8. Throw in some subtext. People are curious creatures. They don’t often say what they really mean. If you want your characters to come across as real and natural, they’ll do the same thing. If one character is angry over one thing, but doesn’t want the other character to know what it is, have him get angry about something else to cover up the truth. The anger is still there, but the other character doesn’t fully understand the reason.
  9. Allow for surprise. Have you ever read a story and been surprised by something a character says? This is an excellent way to keep the reader turning the pages. If your dialogue becomes too predictable, the reader will know where the conversation is headed. So, let your characters act out of character. Just make sure they have a legitimate reason for doing so, or your reader might get frustrated.
  10. End the conversation well. Don’t leave your reader or your characters hanging at the end of a dialogue exchange.
This was a brief introduction into some dialogue tools. Once you get into it and grasp the importance of real dialogue for real characters, you’ll be able to layer in many other facets that will bring your story to life.  

Tiffany Amber Stockton, who writes as Amber Stockton, has been crafting and embellishing stories since childhood. She is an author, speaker, and virtual assistant who lives with her husband and fellow author, Stuart Stockton, in Colorado. Her latest book is Antique Dreams for Heartsong Presents. She and Stu have one daughter, one son, and a dog. She has sold 13 books, with more on the horizon. Visit her online, on Facebook, and on Twitter.

4 comments:

Cozy in Texas said...

Good post. I had the opposite problem when I started writing novels, I tended to do well with descriptions, but not the dialog.
Ann

Jeff Rivera said...

Hey Gina, I thought this was super helpful advice for all kinds of writers...especially if they have trouble writing dialogue (I think we all do at times)! The tips and avoidance were very thoughtful and something that I will have to consider! I will definitely be back to read more advice.

Amber Stockton said...

Ann, maybe you and I can team up and build upon each other's strengths, because I stink at description most times. :)

Jeff, glad the article was helpful. Thanks for dropping by.

Marti Pieper said...

Amber, as a someday novelist, I'm saving this to reread. Thanks so much for sharing.