Wednesday, March 21, 2012

3 Writing "Cheats" for Making Dialogue Work Harder & Ring True

Fight Club. Ghostwriting.
The same rules apply.
The first rule of ghostwriting for a client is: You Don't Talk About Ghostwriting for The Client.

But in order for the first rule to have any teeth, the second rule of ghostwriting must apply. To wit: What You Ghost Must Sound Like The Client, Not Like You.

If you screw up the second rule, the first rule is moot. For a crash course in writing words that ring with a distinctive voice other than your own, ghost a book or two. You'll find the experience invaluable when crafting dialogue for your characters.

If ghosting isn't your thing, however, here are three simple "cheats" to pull from your Writer's Toolbox to craft dialogue that rings true:

1.) What's In a Name  One of the most common (and most glaring) errors in dialogue has to do with how often one character calls another by name. Often, writers will have characters shamelessly name-drop as a way of telling the reader who someone is. But if a character does something in the story strictly for the reader's benefit, then the motivation for that action is false.

In real life, people call each other by name quite infrequently -- except for small children, for whom every other word is "Mom!" When we do use another's name, we apply specific societal rules and rarely stray from them. These same rules also apply to our writing, if we want it to sound authentic.

2-Day Cheat / Fix:  Make a mental note (or keep a physical list) of how many times in a day someone addresses you by name. Every time it happens, write down who said it, what they called you (1st name, last name, whole name, nickname), and the context.

THEN, on a different day, make a mental note (or list, same as before) of how many times YOU address another person by name. Again, every time you do so, write down what you called them, the context, and how well you know this person. Use this research to inform your use of name-calling & name-dropping in your dialogue.

2. Character Dictates Dialogue If a character is fully formed, then every word that character utters is molded by who he (or she) is. The story does not dictate dialogue. Nor does the plot. While it's true that the things said must convey necessary information, the manner in which that information is delivered depends entirely upon who is doing the talking.

Since the writer provides the original voice for every character, often the characters all end up sounding the same.  Sometimes, in an effort to create a notably different voice for a character, a writer will veer sharply off the beaten path and careen wildly down a two-track of stereotypes and cliches. Neither scenario makes for great reading.

Trait Cheat / Fix:  Once the rough draft is finished, choose a minor character. Write out 5 or 6 character traits that define that person. Include his or her flaws as well as strengths. For instance, you might have something that looks like this:

Character D Traits:
  • Egotistical
  • Forthright / Blunt
  • Honest
  • Highly Educated (Graduate Degree)
  • Family Man
(NOTE: A character's description is not a character trait. His or her attractiveness, for example, has nothing to do with his or her character. Beautiful people can be vain, insecure, confident, or awkward. Beauty is a physical attribute. Focus on character.)

Then, look at every scene that features that character. Identify what the character does to move the scene forward. Articulate the character's relationship to everyone in the scene. Make sure both the plotting and the story happen the way you want.

Once you are happy with the story aspect of the scene, look ONLY at this particular character's lines. Rewrite as needed so that every sentence the character utters evidences at least 1 of his or her traits.

To use the hypothetical character example from above:
  • If you have an egotistical character, he might begin a lot of sentences with "I," "my," or "me." 
  • If he's blunt, he's going to be like a bull in a china shop with privileged information. 
  • If he's honest, you can use this knowledge on your reader's part to add subtext to every verbal exchange. 
  • If he's educated, his sentence structure, vocabulary, and syntax are going to be fairly sophisticated. 
  • And if he's a family man, he may try to temper his blunt honesty or vocabulary when there are children, ladies, or his wife present.
This is an excellent exercise to do with every character. It ensures that everyone has his or her own unique, consistent voice. It also helps ensure that you're not relying on dialogue to power your story.

Apply the Trait Cheat to some of the lesser characters before using it on any of the more important players. The reason is two-fold.
1.) You'll quickly get into the rhythm of looking only for a character's lines & revamping them for distinction. Might as well practice on the smaller characters before tackling the big ones. 
2.) After you've done the lesser characters, you'll have given the main characters "real" people to interact with, which will make your wrestling with the main characters' dialogue much easier. 
3. Ask a Stupid Question  A common problem that plagues unrealistic dialogue is the occurrence of tit-for-tat Q & A. Two characters will have a conversation. Person A asks a question. Person B answers it. Person A asks another. Person B replies. Like this:
"How did you get here?" Aaron asked.
"Hopped a train in Portland. I'm starving. Got anything to eat?" said Blake. 
"In the fridge. Help yourself. Did anyone see you?"
Blake shrugged. "Thought I had a tail, but I lost them in St. Louis."
condolences-millie"But this is important information," the writer argues. While that may or may not be true, the reality is that such neatly-tied-with-a-bow exchanges rarely happen IRL. When they happen in print, they sound canned.

In real life, people generally have a Conversation Agenda. Everyone wants to be heard. Everyone wants to get his or her point across. Plots tend to be fairly linear. Conversations, however, rarely are. They are messy, sloppy things, fraught with interruptions and tangents.

Eavesdropping Cheat / Fix

Hang out at a coffee shop, bar, or restaurant. Shamelessly eavesdrop on conversations within earshot. If you feel so inclined, record portions on an MP3 player / phone app & transcribe them verbatim later.

Pay attention to things like unfinished sentences, topic branches, and unanswered questions. Identify underlying subtext in the exchanges. Also note character types like Conversation Manipulators, Capitulators, and Whiners. 

These are just three of the myriad ways to make what your characters say more meaningful, realistic, and readable. Do you have a favorite "Dialogue Cheat" that I didn't mention? Spill below...

2 comments:

Gale Martin said...

Excellent post, Ami. Really wonderful and instructive tips. I like to use the Enneagram to help differentiate character motivations which leads to different character traits and to stronger dialogue.

crimewriterblog.com said...

This is by far the best post I've ever read on writing dialogue. Bookmarking! Thanks so much.