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7 Tips on Dialog

1. Don't think that dialog is supposed to sound like a real conversation. Most real conversations are boring. And they wander off in weird directions without any hint as to where they are going. Lots of "Uh's," and mistakes, and corrections, and "I don't know." I've never been one to say you should sit and transcribe what people actually say. I think this is a bad idea.

2. Dialog is great for showing your characters' wants and how they try to get them filled. When I write dialog, I always think about what this person wants and what that person wants, and if those wants are compatible, and if they're not, who's going to win, or if both will end up with nothing. I think about what each person is willing to put out on the line about themselves. Will they lie? Will they be hurtful? What will they be willing to do to the other person? Do they even see the other person's needs?

3. Dialog is great for moving plot forward. Or back. Or in whatever squiggly shape you want to move your plot in. I think the master of this is Robert D. Parker in his Spenser novels. After you've read one, you think it's full of action. But go back again and see how much of the page space is taken up with dialog. Description is very short, clipped, and action is described in a couple of sentences. Plot is moved with dialog in part because this is a mystery series, and it is about finding out what other people know. But every story is a mystery in that way. Your character knows things. Will she tell them? What will others tells her? Will she know they are lying?

4. Dialog isn't to be used for backstory. (Unless you are a lot cleverer at it than I am). Don't have your characters tell each other things that they already know.

5. What is not said is just as important as what is said in dialog. There will be characters who don't talk much, and that's OK. What do the characters who are around them do? Do they fill in the spaces? Do they make fun? Are they annoyed?

6. Some characters have no idea who they truly are or what they need. This is often revealed through a disjunction between their dialog and their actions. Another time for disjunction--when your character is lying. But why do they say what they say, when it isn't true? I find this fascinating.

7. Instead of listening to verbatim conversations, I think it is far more useful to do pretend conversations in your head. Some of us writers do this naturally. We call it the game of "That's what I wish I said." That's when you think of the brilliant zinger, far too late. But it also helps to think about, what if I said this, and they said this, and so forth. If you know people well enough, you can imagine things very well indeed.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid my skill with dialog in novels does not help me much in real life. I'm still too slow to think of those zingers quick enough to make them matter.

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Copyright Mette Ivie Harrison 2011 all rights reserved.
Last revised August 10, 2011.