Beginning Writer's Craft

Talking the talk, writing the talk

© Will Greenway 2000

In the section previous to this, we discussed point-of-view and how it affects narrative. We touched on time and how developing an awareness of it creates an immersive experience for the reader. Additionally, we explored how character perspective creates a filtering effect for details and descriptions that creates a better sense of personality and attitude.

In this piece, we will work with developing scenes and one of the strongest aspects of characterization—dialogue. Dialogue is both the simplest and hardest aspect of writing. It's often hard because writers make it hard. Some writers simply have an ear for dialogue. Others it sounds overly formal, or too forced and artificial.

Truth told, there is simply is no substitute for being a good observer. If you really have to reach to create good dialogue, sit on a bench in a crowded mall, or anywhere there are people. Really listen to them talk. Besides learning some undesirable things about people, you will hear patterns, accents, and rhythm. After you've done a stint with people in public, turn on a news cast and listen to that for a while. Notice, that a good news caster doesn't just monotonically repeat back the news. They inflect, pause and emphasize to make the exposition more interesting. After you've studied a news cast, look at these same techniques raised a notch in skill. Watch a good drama. Listen to the dialogue. Do these people really talk like the people you heard in the mall? The simple answer is NO. Yet, it sounds compelling and realistic (if it's a good drama). Watch an action film. Often the dialogue will be a mixture of seriousness, and comedic one-liners.  

The key thing to take away from all this is that good dialogue does not necessarily emulate real life. People speak in fragmented, and often redundant ways. Their speech is rarely incisive and to the point. The people who do talk like this are professional speakers (teachers for instance). Public speaking is how they make their living.

In a novel or short story, dialogue is a dramatic simulation of real-life dialogue. An example of literary dialogue is the speech in Shakespeare's plays. We can be fairly certain that Shakespeare was NOT reproducing the language commonly spoken. The words are elaborate and chock full of metaphors and innuendo, the patterns of speech are deliberately exotic and exaggerated. Let's face it, no normal person who wasn't reading from a script could maintain the elaborate and deliberateness of Shakespearean speech for any length of time.

Despite this unreal presentation, many people love and admire Shakespeare. The fancy dialogue is an intentional part of his style. Your own stories are the same. When writing good dialogue, you will end up creating something stylized that is sharpened and gets more to the point than normal conversation. Like in a movie, your characters are actors, and what words they say should be no different than acting dialogue in a movie (a good one). Speak your own dialogue aloud. Do this when no-one else is around so they don't think you're crazy. How does it sound? Is it tough to say? Remember, what you say aloud is what the reader hears in their head. I cannot emphasize this enough—READ YOUR DIALOGUE ALOUD! The best way to know if what you are doing is right, is if it sounds good to your own ear. If you stumble or trip on the words then you have a problem. Write and revise the dialogue until it's smooth, or has the rhythm you specifically intend.

There's more to dialogue than just the words though. There's all the scene techniques that go with it. Let's go into the scene building and how the scenes themselves support and extend the effects of characters speaking.

One of the most common problems in dialogue is the "talking head" syndrome. Essentially, characters in a scene begin talking, and after some discourse, we lose track of who's talking, where we are, and what the characters speaking are doing.

This is usually because the writer is aware of repeats in dialogue attribution, so they try to compensate by cutting away tags. This results in a lot of "floating" quotes. Another way beginners will compensate is with "swifties" and myriad variations and synonyms for the word 'said'. Swifties are adverbial modifiers for attributions. Examples: "he said hotly", "she said coolly", "he said quickly", "she said tartly", etc. Used in moderation these aren't so bad, but when we start seeing several per page they stop being color and their affect gets both diluted and annoying. More importantly, while they might describe how something is spoken, they are more TELL than SHOW.

The last dialogue symptom, that of 'said synonyms', is a result of synaptic damage caused by too much direct contact with a thesaurus—just kidding. 'Said synonyms' are like swifties, they're okay in moderation (one, maybe two per page). However, when every attribution is 'he snarled', 'she snapped', 'he interjected', 'she declared', 'he asserted', 'she affirmed', 'he announced' this is something that shouts BEGINNER! There are better and more effective ways to handle dialogue and character interaction. So, let's get to it.

Let's start with one little rule to keep in mind.

The word "said" is perfectly okay. It's a nice, very innocuous word. It's a word that most people who read fiction barely even register as their eye passes over it. That's a good thing. The less noticed the better. If some other context doesn't already identify the speaker, go ahead and use 'he said' or 'she said' to identify who is doing the talking. It's all right— really.

Let's put the dialogue discussion into a scene context. Before handling the scene itself, consider how the stage will be set.

First, we want there to be some dynamic elements in the scene besides the characters. If this is a private scene, in a quiet place—any environmental cue will work; crickets chirping outside, a cold draft of air causing the drapes to flutter, some smell or anything else that heightens our sense of place. The slats of the bed can creak, floorboards can groan, or the moan of bricks as the building settles. The real world is dynamic. Rarely is our environment without some sound or sensation. Your world should be the same way. Think about the setting where the scene is taking place. If you were there, what sounds, smells, tastes, visuals and feelings would YOU note? Make a list of these sensory details—then consider which of them your viewpoint character might note. Choose this list carefully, because what details they pick up on will characterize them. Keep this list on hand because it will be useful in polishing the finished scene.

Second, set the stage. You are the director. In the movies, rarely is a scene shot straight on. The camera is usually at an angle or pans around the characters. As a writer, you can simulate these dynamics and something else they do in Hollywood and that is to use stage props. Rarely are characters alone in a scene without a phone, a knife, something. People talk with their hands and bodies as much or more than with their mouths. When a warrior reaches down and grips his sword white knuckled while glaring at someone—he/she HAS communicated. Not a word has been said, but a message has been sent. This kind of indirection is an extremely valuable tool. It cannot be stressed enough how key this can be to effective and stylish storytelling.

Props: make them a part of the scene. Use them. Props can be fiddled with, gestured with, massaged, tapped, crunched—all of them can put an otherwise static character in motion. Motion is good. Characters should never sit still unless the stillness—such as "freezing" in surprise—is a mechanism in itself.

Third, tagging the characters themselves. We just talked about props for characters to play with. Let's build on that idea for the characters. Clothing, jewelry, hair, scars—anything that sets that character off from others is good. These tags help us not only to visualize the person, but also to identify them. A simple example: one female character in a group is always portrayed as wearing bells. It's dark in a room and the main character cannot see. He can hear though—he hears bells that jingle to a stop nearby and he hears a feminine voice. We don't have to identify the speaker now. We might add— "a familiar feminine voice said from on his right." This is especially good, because the reader is being invited to fill in the rest.

With our scene preparations taken care of, time needs to be spent considering methods for making the character interactions interesting and dynamic. Never have two characters simply discuss something. Always break up the material somehow. Another character can interrupt. Sounds can cause the characters to look up. Do whatever you can to vary the rhythm of the interchanges.

Another helpful hint is to make characters have noticeably different speech patterns. This doesn't take much. If one character uses a particular curse, or they always speak in third person. Patterns can be used simulate dialect without using ' symbols all the time. Even something as simple as the character always puts the verb before the noun. Simplistic—yes, it is. Simple is good. The more easily identifiable a pattern is, the less you will have to attribute it.

Take note that everything we've discussed are tools you put in your tool box. They are energy you will use to pump into the scene. The more visual and interesting the details, the more spark it will put into the interactions you depict. When you are creating the cast for your book or story, giving them traits that can be exploited in this fashion will provide a bounty of visual and sensory "beats" that will anchor the reader.

Before doing some examples, lets summarize the tools in the toolbox and add some additional dialogue and scene guidelines.

  • 1. Be mindful of environmental cues and USE them in a scene to occasionally remind us where we are.
  • 2. Set the stage, and give the characters props to interact with, and make use of them to strengthen their presence in the scene.
  • 3. If characters don't already have identifying tags, figure out what significant details you can use to set each character apart from the others in the current scene.

  • A. "Said" is OKAY.
  • B. Differentiate speech patterns.
  • C. Gestures and motion serve as dialogue attribution.
  • D. Vary the rhythm of the exchanges in the scene. Break up any monotony with discord, sensory details, and environmental reminders. The real world is full of distractions. Make your world real too. Again (as always) maintain moderation.
  • E. When voices change pitch, register, or tone — let us know. Don't say, he said "angrily". SHOW US! Give the stiffening of the man's body, his face turning red, the dropping of his voice, and the clenching of his fists. That is how vivid storytelling is done.
  • F. When the intent of dialogue is other than the dialogue suggests, give us the character's expression, or some kind of visual context that clues us to the emotional register at work. Example: John sighed and shook his head. "Oh sure, this'll be loads of fun."
  • G. Physical contact is one of the strongest kinds of human communication. Lovers and friends demonstrate their closeness by TOUCH. Do not underestimate the power of this mechanism for visually reminding us not only of the presence of significant "others" but to reinforce their relationship to the viewpoint character. Note: This rule can work very well in reverse—the character isolated from contact.
  • H. Eyes are marvelous tools in scenes. Much can be "said" with a simple raise of an eyebrow and no dialogue at all. (Look what it did for Mr. Spock!) Eyes can narrow. They can flash. They can mist over. Don't over-do it! Watch out for disembodied eyes that "follow people around", that slide up legs or down deep cut blouses. The EYES don't do this—A person's GAZE might—but their eyes stay in their skull (at least we hope so).
  • I. Hands speak as loud as any words. Be mindful of what a character's hands are doing. Characters can emphasize with them, they can threaten, they can plead. Yelling "Why me!?" doesn't have half as much effect without the visual of the gaze turned toward the sky and the arms flung out to either side.
  • J. When used sparingly, the EM dash is an effective dialogue tool that helps simulate broken or interrupted speech. Characters interrupting and overriding each other in a scene give the narrative more punch and realism.
    "You can't! It's not—"
    "Fair?" Celia interrupted. "Who said it had to be fair?"
  • K. Remember attitude. In every scene, characters will play roles and serve different functions—passive, aggressive, instigator, or instigated. Opposition is key to maintaining the energy of the scene. Consider two men, friends for years. Their banter is often faintly abusive. It's simply part of male machismo, and an aggressive trait of human nature. The characters don't have to fight, but play up the tension and give us the possibility of anger or insult, characters looking for hidden agendas, guessing at hidden meanings and intent.
  • L. Less is more. You've heard it before—it's still true. Remember tension—especially large amounts of it—is hard to maintain. Paint your scene, satisfy your agenda, and move on. A scene can be perfect right up to the point it begins to drag. You have to cut away before that happens.
Putting It All Together
We have the tools, let's see if we can't put them to use.
Note: In this first example. Annawen's dialogue is handled with '<' and '>' instead of standard quotes. This scene is late in the material long after I established that when she "speaks" other people hear it in their head (telepathy). The '<' and '>' are a visual tag that immediately identify her as the one communicating.
Corim awoke from a fitful sleep to the sound of splashing. The unexpected sounds made him sit up. It took a moment to focus on the source of the noise.
Morning light streamed in through the bay window. Dust motes danced in the beam that reflected sparkles off the luxuriant carpeting. Annawen reclined naked in his sunken tub, idly toying with the soap bubbles in the steaming water. She wasn't here because of the reverb this time. She and Cassin had seen to it his power would stay off when he turned it off.
Every time he looked on this fetching woman, he wondered why he wasn't more drawn to her. Perhaps it was her overwillingness to bed him that kept him at a distance.
She smiled at him and stretched languidly, giving Corim a tantalizing view of her soapy gold body. <Good morning, Sleepyhead.>
He sat on the edge of the huge four poster bed and rubbed his face. "What are you doing in there?"
She raised an eyebrow. <Is there something else you do with water and soap?>
He sighed. "Why not use your own tub?"
<That question is as silly as the first one.>
Corim drew a breath and counted to five.
Annawen cut off his response. <You've got these outmoded notions about women. They don't have to be fragile and shy, nor do you have to be this shining chaste knight to be attractive. It's clear you're interested in Dulcere.> She shook her head. <Consider the 'ifs' though. That's if we find her, and if you can interest a woman eight-thousand times your age.> She smiled wanly. <In the meantime, we could still have sex a few times. Sharing doesn't mean we have to be permanently committed to each other.>

I picked this scene because it has attitude. It's not a fight, in fact it's like a love scene turned sideways. Both characters communicate their feelings verbally and visually and we know how they feel. Interestingly enough, the word 'said' never appears in the whole passage.
Here's a little handling of dialect and speech patterns to keep an exchange interesting.
"You be stuck on her, of that I be certain."
Corim looked around startled. For all his mass, the hulking dwarf moved like a whisper. Dac grinned up at him and pulled at the strings on his leather hauberk.
"What makes you think so?"
"The wind blowing through your hollow head, Lad. I seen the look before, had it once me self. Truth told, ain't never got over it. Hurts worse than a half-century of battle scars."
He eyed the stern-faced dwarf. It had taken a while to get used to Dac's gravely tone and bluntness. Perhaps his frankness was what Corim liked. Having two war-masters around certainly hadn't made his training easier.
"So, you look ready to go. It's that time I suppose?"
Dac pulled at his mustache. "Aye, Lad, time to put the spike in the wall and see what we open up."
Corim heard footsteps and saw Beia coming toward them dressed in her travel leathers. Her bow Snowfire, was slung over one shoulder and she used Eboneye the spear as a staff. "Ready to go?" she asked.
Dac nodded. "Me and the Lad will hold our end." He grimaced. "Can't say I'm screaming happy about this time traveling dross."
Beia folded her arms, holding the spear in the crook of an elbow. "It'll be okay. Cassin knows what she's doing."
"Lass, ain't what she knows that concerns me. Never did like being popped about by mages, always made me want to throw dredge."
She nodded and laughed. "You'll get through it."
"Aye." He growled low in his throat.

Now lets go for something completely different. This is a longer excerpt and a great deal more is going on. This takes place late in the course of events and there are several characters. Try to focus on the scene business, the non-verbal communication, and the styling of the dialogue.

Without apparent concern, Idun greeted Odin's charge with shoulders back and chin up. She toyed with her hair, and brushed at her armor as though the approach of this assemblage of juggernauts was nothing but a harmless parade.
Odin stormed at the group looking as if he would ride right over them.
"Don't flinch," Idun's voice whispered in Bannor's ear, even over the deafening crash of the Aesir's charge. He guessed Idun spoke to them all because Sarai jerked at the same time he heard her voice. Resolve hardened the expressions of the others.
From a full gallop, the massive war-god boomed to a stop only a pace from the goddess. Rocks and dirt bounced around her feet and a thick cloud of dust drifted over everyone. The eight-legged beast tossed its head and snorted, its breath making Idun's hair flutter. Behind them, Tymoril and Kegari growled.
Winged helmet pulled low on his head, and a jeweled patch over one eye, the craggy-faced Allfather glared at them, his single blue eye flashing. He slammed his giant war spear Grungir point down into the turf at Idun's feet.
On Odin's right, one-handed Tyr reined in, his russet mane of hair and braided mustaches threaded with bones. On the left, Loki had halted his horse, and stared at them with folded arms. A goddess in gold robes that Bannor guessed was Odin's wife Frigga held up directly behind the leader. A bald god with a smooth blocky face halted at her side. Decorated in an entire arsenal of weaponry, he wore nothing more than a pair of dark breeches to cover his rippling physique.
Bannor guessed that he must be Thor's brother Vidar, the warrior Euriel warned them about. His role appeared to be protecting Frigga. Seven more deities made up the Aesir war party, five more men, and two women. Bannor didn't know their names, or anything about them except they all looked capable—powerful—each one able to rip apart a continent if they desired.
"Idun," Odin spoke her name in a voice that sounded like a roll of thunder. He raised his chin and arcs of lightning danced around him. "You stand your ground like one confident of winning."
The corner of the goddess' mouth quirked. "I stand my ground like someone who hasn't done anything wrong." She sniffed. "That and because we will win."
"Insanity!" Tyr blared, raising a war axe. "Milord let me—"
"Silence!" Odin halted Tyr's tirade with a raised fist. Blue fire crackled around his hands as he stared at their group. "Idun, your perfidy is complete..." As he spoke, Loki rose in the saddle with a smirk. "By collaborating in the slaying of your immortal kin, Hella, you have sealed your fate and that of all who willingly served you. It is our honor-bound duty to cleanse the Aesir of your murderous presence—"
"What—?" Daena burst out in a voice so loud that it stopped even Odin. "Not this nonsense again! Know wherefore you speak, lord all father. She can't have killed Hella—because Hella isn't dead!"
Idun looked back at Daena with a raised eyebrow, then glanced at Odin.
Odin drew himself up, a vein pulsing in his temple. "What manner of foolishness is this? Hella is dead, Loki has seen it for himself."
Daena put hands on hips. "Oh, right, you believe him!?" A fist seized Bannor's chest as Deana stomped forward, shoving past Jord to stand within reach of Odin. "You only took his word because it suited you. Well, I have had enough!" Flames erupted in her eyes. "You posturing blackguards won't disguise your agendas by pretending some righteous defense of my memory!" She swung her arms up as if tossing off a garment. Daena's form shredded away like a snake's old skin as another larger shape split it apart—the imposing figure of Hella. Her hair turned to flames, and shadows wrapped around her body. Sparks flashed from fingers that now ended in talons.
Chest heaving, she brandished a fist at Odin and swung around to glare at Loki. Her voice took on an echoing quality that resounded across the field, snapping like a rimy gale. "Do I look dead to you cretins?! Do I?! I started my life over to escape the petty squabbling of you blustering self-righteous thugs and your insipid bellicose arrogance. If you have a grievance against Idun that must be resolved by bloodshed—so be it. All my strength is with her. So, if I am dead this day. Odin will be my killer—not Idun. The High Jury should withdraw support of this self-serving injustice before irrevocable harm is done." She pointed a glowing finger at the gods behind Odin. "You are warned."
She spun on her heel and strode back toward the group.
Eyes wide, Idun stared at the other goddess. "Hella?"
The flaming apparition didn't respond, she moved stiffly past Idun and Jord. With each step she shrank, a green light flickering around her body. By the time she stood by Bannor and Sarai, she had returned to her identity as Daena. Bannor stared at the young woman. He hoped that Idun wouldn't learn of the duality she shared with Hella. Now, it appeared Hella was more alive in her than they guessed! Sarai tightened her grip on his arm, gaze shifting from him to the girl. Daena turned and faced the enemy, hazel eyes glinting in anger.
Even Odin was struck speechless for a moment. The gods in his contingent murmured and stirred. The Allfather glowered at Loki who shrank back with a dismayed expression.
Odin's jaw set. Straightening in his saddle, he squared his shoulders. "We are neither amused, nor fooled by this trick. The penalty for slaying an immortal is execution of the perpetrator and all associated. Sentence to be carried out immediately. Our word is law. We have spoken." He nodded to Tyr.
The one-handed god stiffened, a moment of doubt registered in his expression as he met Odin's gaze. A distant rumble grew stronger as the two gods eyed one another. After a moment, Tyr sagged in resignation.
"Kill them," he growled, gesturing with his axe. "Kill them all."

Granting that all of these examples are out of context, the majority of the action and what the characters are doing should be both clear and visual.

When re-examining these pieces, focus on is the visual and visceral techniques that work together with the dialogue to create that alive, dynamic feel to the scenes. Notice that people move, they gesture, the quality of their voices are described, emotion is communicated not only in the dialogue but in the body language as well. The details of characters, even late in the story are still reinforced for the sake visual clarity and simply to remind the reader. Another key element is that while there is a great deal of description it is done in action, through a character's viewpoint. The story doesn't come to a screeching halt while the omniscient narrator chimes in to tell us about it. The details and description are given to us "in-line" or "on-the-run" as the story is unfolding, one or two details at a time—or a short paragraph if the action and visuals are complex.

An important thing to take away from all this is that good dialogue is more than just the words spoken. It's all the supporting storytelling techniques that go with it, both in how it makes characters more vibrant, and in how it gives the story itself greater texture and life.

This comes back to the basic rule that's been repeated in these articles and elsewhere that good stories are shown not told. Well-written exposition with strong voice can entertain, but vivid and visual narrative from a clear and dynamic viewpoint can enthrall. The moment we as readers are drawn into the story-the moment we suspend disbelief... we are hooked.

Getting the reader hooked is what fine fiction is all about.

In this section we focused on dialogue and scene business, and examined some excerpts that show dialogue, action, and characterization at work. In our next section, we will focus on characterization itself and the specific techniques and details of depicting vivid characters.