bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 23, 2012 - 1:47pm

I was just thinking of the dialogue I write.  I came up with these four guidelines I try to keep in mind while I'm writing:

 

1) People never say what they mean.  They say 'almost' what they mean, sometimes.  Sometimes they say the opposite.  But no one ever asks for exactly what they want, because that makes them too vulnerable.  


2) People never answer the question that's asked.  They answer the question they wish had been asked.


3) People always want something.  There has to be a reason for the dialogue for each character. What do they want?


4) Everybody lies.

 

What ideas do you keep in your head when you start writing dialogue?

drea's picture
drea from Rural Alberta, Canada is reading between the lines December 23, 2012 - 1:51pm

Great points, Bryan. I remind myself to write it how the character would say it, not how I would say it. 

Sound's picture
Sound from Hesperia, CA is reading Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer December 23, 2012 - 1:56pm

Good guidelines to work by. I'm going to keep them in mind. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 23, 2012 - 2:07pm

I was reading the flash entries when it occured to me that a lot of the time, I skim the paragraphs and look for dialogue.  Even in flash, I have a natural tendency to look for dialogue.  So if the dialogue doesn't tell the whole story in a microcosm of what the rest of the story tells, then I miss much of the actual story.  

The more I write, the more I'm convinced that dialogue matters more to me than anything else in a story.

(edit:

I think that if the dialogue tells a different story than the setting and action suggest, it's doubly effective.  Two armed robbers having a conversation about infidelity while robbing a house is way more involved than if they were just talking about expensive things to steal)

Matt's picture
Matt from New Zealand is reading This is how you lose her by Junot Diaz December 23, 2012 - 2:09pm

The more I write, the more I'm convinced that dialogue matters more to me than anything else in a story.

Funny you say that, I've been thinking the same thing lately. I've always been uncomfortable writing dialogue, but have been focusing more on it recently. The more I write, the more it becomes obvious that my dialogue is a weak area.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks December 23, 2012 - 2:27pm

At first, dialogue was the weakest part of my writing, and then I stopped thinking about it. I don't think about what my characters are saying, I think about what they're thinking, and the conversation comes straight out of that. Sometimes I think about where to put the dialogue tag and stuff, because it's a great way to convey a pause or hesitation, but I almost never think about the actual words being said.

When I revise it, I'm usually surprised by what "they" said, and almost never make distinct changes in the dialogue. I hate polished and perfected dialogue. Raw and rough dialogue is the best; it's the truest to the character, since it isn't perfect prose, and editing makes me want to fix "errors."

Grammar is a huge part of dialogue for me; it's important to know the rules, and know which rules are most frequently broken, or it won't sound right. Contractions and prepositions are major ones -- almost no one uses both words in place of a contraction, and I never, ever hear someone say "From what state does he come?" It's "What state is he from?" Always. Since I'm such a stickler for grammar, editing dialogue would kill it because I'd always try to make the prose lilting and pretty, the words fit together, the syntax and clauses tight.

Also, watching a lot of TV helps. No shit, Law & Order pretty much cemented my dialogue writing techniques.

wavedomer's picture
wavedomer from Boise is reading Rum Punch December 23, 2012 - 2:29pm

When I write dialogue I keep in mind that it's too important for fluff. Dialogue is one of the main ways to build / reveal character. It's almost like a tennis match. Someone says something like they are hitting the ball into the other character's side of the court, so they have to do something with it: lob it back, drop shot it, smash it, etc. Also, when I write dialogue, it is the part of my writing that probably shocks me the most in terms of what comes out unplanned by me. If that makes sense. Character takes over.

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading Books December 23, 2012 - 2:37pm

I think that if the dialogue tells a different story than the setting and action suggest, it's doubly effective.  Two armed robbers having a conversation about infidelity while robbing a house is way more involved than if they were just talking about expensive things to steal)

A prime example of this is the 2nd scene in Pulp Fiction. After the opening scene, we're riding in a car with Jules and Vincent. At first, we have no idea (the first time we ever saw it) where they're going or what they're doing, but the dialogue centers around Vince's time in Amsterdam. The dialogue really has nothing to do with the scene, but we learn about both characters. When they get to the apartment complex and realize that they're going to kill someone, all that previous dialogue makes the whole scene more ominous. Inside the apartment building, they have a conversation about foot massages. The dialogue there, I believe, is to make the viewer forget or anticipate what's about to happen. Tarantino stretches out the inevitable with dialogue that tells a completely different story than what's actually happening. The scene would be boring if Vince and Jules talked about how they're going to kill these guys. There would be no anticipation. And because they're conversation is so cool and calm, when Jules finally screams, "I didn't ask you a Goddamn thing!" we're shocked right back into the scene and how ominous everything really is. There are so many more scenes like that in the movie, but I think that one's the most well known of them all.

 

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks December 23, 2012 - 2:50pm

Ever seen the movie Employee of the Month? Not the shitty Dane Cook comedy or whatever, the drama from like 2004.

Anyway, I've probably mentioned this before -- and this is going to be rife with spoilers -- but every line of dialogue actually means something completely different once the ending is revealed. The characters, at first, seem like they're just lamenting their shitty life, their shitty jobs, their horrible hand in life... until one character dies, and then you find out he isn't dead, he organized the bank robbery where he was "killed" and every single goddamn line of dialogue has to do with the bank robbery.

Like, at the beginning, the main character and his best friend are talking about the main character's wedding. The best friend keeps saying shit like, "You're fucking up," and "You're losing sight of the plan," and shit like that. You think it's just because he's a douche and "the plan" is their lives, and whatever. Other stuff like that. It never hints at what's coming, but then at the end, while the credits roll, there's a sort of remix of the dialogue and it comes crashing down and makes sense. The line constantly repeated in the remix is "Everything I am is an illusion."

All in all, it's probably the best example I've ever seen of hidden meaning.

kward's picture
kward from Alberta is reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn December 23, 2012 - 3:43pm

Great tips here...thank you. I will keep these in mind.

Stephen_Inf's picture
Stephen_Inf from Florida is reading John Dies at the End December 23, 2012 - 6:36pm

Very good guidelines.  I don't say a heck of a lot in real life, which makes dialogue a bit of a struggle for me on paper and I always end up keeping it to a minimum.  Kind of feels like I'm doing my characters a disservice by putting the gag on them so I'm always trying to figure out how to make what they say, however little it may be, a little bit better.  So, yeah, thanks.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 23, 2012 - 6:40pm

For as much as I get tired of Tarantino having his style override some of his movies, the man can do dialogue during action like no one else.  Pulp Fiction has the most impressive, but there are a couple of moments in True Romance and Inglorious Bastards that are just as good.  People talking about one thing while the world of action is a second storyline.

The man can write.  

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons December 24, 2012 - 2:08am

Bryan -- TY for the tips.I thought dialogue was one of my stronger points, but as I get stronger on some other writing areas I see I need a shitload of help with dialogue. Did you take that dialogue class? Your tips are something to always keep in mind. Thanks friend.

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing December 24, 2012 - 2:16am

I like Tarantino and all, but [I feel it's worth mentinoing] his writing is often heavily stylized and non-realistic. (I'm not saying realism should be anyone's goal---because people like what they like---) but his stuff requires a suspension of disbelief, both in action and dialogue, regardless of the setting; it's not like he's writing about elves and shit, but given the action he portrays, he sometimes might as well be.

[em dash/close parenthesis=fyeah]

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 24, 2012 - 2:28am

The only class I've taken is 200 Proof with Craig Clevenger.  He talked a lot about dialogue, but different stuff than these ideas (although there is a bit of overlap with the 'what does each character want when they talk').  I would love to take more classes, but I am what is known locally as a 'broke ass bitch.'

 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts December 26, 2012 - 10:13pm

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Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts December 26, 2012 - 1:06pm

Don't ever use dialogue you originally came up with in a dream. Shit never makes any sense.

Dave Hanson's picture
Dave Hanson from Connecticut is reading Incredibly pulpy fantasy and sci-fi December 26, 2012 - 1:20pm

One writing exercise that I use from time to time that is helpful for unsticking scenes is to write a scene that is nothing but dialogue. Then go back on a 2nd draft and start adding in actions. Then setting details. It's an interesting technique that I learned (but haven't mastered) back in college to build scenes. 

 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 26, 2012 - 2:24pm

Ren, try those guidelines and write a scene that's nothing but dialogue.  See if does work for you at all.  Make each character tell at least one lie (or partial truth), have them try to change the subject instead of answering a question (or answering the question with an evasion), and make sure they both have a purpose for talking to each other (what does each of them want?).

It might not work for you, but it does for me.  

 

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters December 26, 2012 - 2:32pm

I was JUST talking about the rules you lined out in the first post a couple days ago!  I always try to remember that people are never talking about the same thing, and to answer questions with a little bit of evasion.  Sometimes it works, sometimes I make a mess.  But I've written some scenes I'm very proud of with that in mind.  I think it adds some depth to the characters.

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing December 26, 2012 - 2:56pm

You just got three en dashes hyphens in a row there though, JY, no em dashes.

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading Books December 26, 2012 - 3:03pm

For me, first and foremost, it's about having an ear or developing an ear for dialogue. All the rules, tips and tricks are great, but lack of understanding how dialogue 'sounds' won't get you very far. Also, and just as important, is knowing how your characters speak. Try stripping out all the dialogue in a story, cut the tags and see if you can tell the difference between each character. 

Ive found, too, that knowing when dialogue should be used is important. When a conversation needs to advance the plot, I use dialogue. 

One last thing I keep in mind is knowing when to use speech tags, action tags or no tags. Too many speech tags can become boring and frustrating. Too many action tags can bog down the story. Too much dialogue without tags can simply be confusing.

These are the elements I keep in mind when writing dialogue.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts December 26, 2012 - 10:12pm

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JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing December 26, 2012 - 3:38pm

- – —

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner December 26, 2012 - 3:51pm

I just try to make people seem real. No one speaks in paragraph long chunks, explaining endless details (if they do, I won't hang out with them, or they write them, like me). It's normally rapid fire, especially among family or friends who know each other and have nuance. 

"What are you doing?"

"Nothing."

"Want to go to Winn Dixie?"

"Yeah, I guess."

"What's your problem?"

"Buddy is dead."

Most people tend to speak and listen in a way where they're waiting for the other to finish and sometimes a spade is just a spade. Sometimes people just talk just to hear themselves. There doesn't have to be a reason to talk sometimes, even in a story. 

 

These sort of rules or guidelines or suggestion or whatever moniker is attached to these hints tend to obstruct the artistic process and make writing realistic people that much harder. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 26, 2012 - 3:56pm

These sort of rules or guidelines or suggestion or whatever moniker is attached to these hints tend to obstruct the artistic process and make writing realistic people that much harder.

No.  

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner December 26, 2012 - 4:03pm

Your opinion. 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 26, 2012 - 4:06pm

No.  It was your opinion.  It was wrong.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner December 26, 2012 - 4:11pm

So why did you bother to post this if you're not going to offer anything other than "no"

 

What ideas do you keep in your head when you start writing dialogue?"

By all means, tell me how I'm wrong. I don't think human beings can be put in a form or mold or a box and to write in a such a way, with a myriad of rules where blanky blank is the hero on a horse, makes cliche shallow characters. 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts December 26, 2012 - 10:11pm

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bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 26, 2012 - 4:15pm

tell me how I'm wrong

No.

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading Books December 26, 2012 - 4:17pm

All that evasion is just unappealing to me. So with them not saying what they mean, fuckin not answering my goddamn questions, telling fibs, what they're really doing is stalling, and really they've got like one freaking sentence that actually matters? How about just say that? How about instead of a volleyball match of deceit, we have a race to the truth? Whoever can say the most truthful thing the fastest, and if not the fastest then it's the more correct truth, or the bigger truth. And we both can play dirty. I like chasing the truth much better than digging through a sea of lies for a little nugget at the end, could cover much more serious ground by getting to the fucking point and then moving beyond that

- one thing I've learned, and what I think Howie is getting at, is that what's annoying in real life (or to you) is intriguing, compelling and interesting in fiction. What we have to keep in mind is that these are our characters, not us.

How does lying crush a human heart with a sentence?

Character A: 'tell me you love me.'

Character B:'I don't love you

Character B says that, and the reader knows that he/she does love character A, then we have a much more interesting and compelling story. Even if the reader doesnt already know that A loves B, the truth of the lie will be revealed later and still makes for a much more interesting story. Of course, there has to be outside circumstances that would make character B say this. Simply, it creates tension and conflict and those two elements are what drives the story. 

Character A: 'Tell me you love me.'

Character B: 'I love you.'

Boring and your story has basically ended right there.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner December 26, 2012 - 4:19pm

Why the hell are they doing it then? If someone does not immediately punch that character directly in their stupid yappity mouth for being fucking inane then there's no point in it existing. Stories should matter and the things in them mean something, is all.

 

So, check out The Stand. There's this guy in it, I can't remember his name, he links up with the pyro guy. Anyway, he does not shut the fuck up and goes on and on and on about nothing. He's there, he has a place in the story, but the chatty bull shit just differentiates him from the others and gives him depth. He literally says nothing for pages and pages. 

 

No."

^^^

Boring and your story has basically ended right there.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner December 26, 2012 - 4:24pm

@Ren, this is the best example of what I mean. All this woman had to say was, "Yes, there was a fire. It burned the building." Alas, she did not. 

 

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading Books December 26, 2012 - 4:27pm

^^^ And it made the video interesting, funny and a hit on Youtube. 

 

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts December 26, 2012 - 10:10pm

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R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading Books December 26, 2012 - 5:20pm

 "I don't love you" isn't any weight on my heart, really.

- We're not talking about your heart. We're talking the characters in your story. 

What's this lie covering up? 

- Of course, there has to be outside circumstances that would make character B say this.

Just let out the unsightly, unbearable truth, character. Get your balls out and nut up.

- This works sometimes, but more often then not, it completely kills the conflict and tension. No conflict or tension, boring ass story. Boring ass story, bored readers. Bored readers, no readers. 

It's not any more of a compelling story, just long and infuriating.

Sure it is. What we find long and infuriating in real life is compelling and interesting in fiction. You want to keep the readers reading, waiting to see what happens next. 

Why should do all that then when the character can simply just not be such a dick?

- Because a character being a dick, a nice guy, whatever creates an emotional response within the reader. And, going along with the example I used above, it creates character arc. If character B says 'I love you', especially at the beginning of the story, where's the conflict? Where's the character arc? Essentially, the story's been told and what's the point of continuing? This applies to plots or sub-plots.

 

avery of the dead's picture
avery of the dead from Kentucky is reading Cipher Sisters December 26, 2012 - 5:20pm

The Stand - if I'm not mistaken...that character is in the extended version.  He was cut out of the original.  Possibly for a good reason.

 

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner December 26, 2012 - 5:24pm

@Matt I'm reading The Stand at this exact moment, you somekinda-black-magician. Haven't read that scene yet tho. Isn't the point of it though that the whole time you really want to punch that asshole in the throat? It's talk as a form of agression."
 

Yeah, but that's the point. You want the reader to emote and that's why King is one of the best. The character is The Kid, he's annoying and weird as shit, but a clear and defined person. I get what you're saying about making things needlessly deceptive for the sake of compelling literature. Yeah, you could dance all night with your hand on my ass, but eventually I want you to make your move. 

 

The Stand - if I'm not mistaken...that character is in the extended version.  He was cut out of the original.  Possibly for a good reason."

he's annoying and weird as shit,

omekinda-black-magician."

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading Books December 26, 2012 - 5:24pm

I do agree that a character's dialogue that has nothing to do with the story is longwinded and infuriating.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 26, 2012 - 5:33pm

Just let out the unsightly, unbearable truth, character.

I like this idea.  Just have a character that says the most obnoxious things possible.  But, that's just one character.  Another character might be bound by her/his ideas of being socially polite in heated discussions, another might not be interested in the things being discussed, while another might want to change that character's mind by proving a point through hyperbole.  

I'm a big dialogue fiend in stories.  I want the character to be shown through the dialogue as well as through any other narrative tools.  A line of dialogue that shows me the character is worth a thousand words of telling me what he is like.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts December 26, 2012 - 10:09pm

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bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 26, 2012 - 7:05pm

You might be agreeing, but you sound like a dick.  

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts December 26, 2012 - 10:18pm

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R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading Books December 26, 2012 - 7:48pm

Ughh...

I'm done. Write how you want.

Renfield's picture
Renfield from Hell is reading 20th Century Ghosts December 26, 2012 - 10:18pm

I know I'm a complete twat who torpedoes conversations. I gotta do some magic here on my incessant blithering so people can talk about Brian's topic because it's great and worth talking about. I'm sorry I fuckin go on about stuff and it's not interesting and it could hurt or offend or disrespect someone without my dumb ass thinking twice about it so, there. I won't pillowcase anyone else's discussion anymore, I feel bad about it and know it's been happening a lot. Sorry.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading Comic books and motorcycle riding guides December 28, 2012 - 4:01pm

This is something that occured to me as I was writing a critique.  

Have you ever been around a mechanic talking about relationships?  They always talk about relationships in terms of engines and fuel and spark.  They use the jargon of their hobby to explain the rest of their life. 

I think that's an important thing to do in dialogue.  It shows expertise, gives authority, and gives a sense of the person's life without having to say 'he's a mechanic'.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner December 28, 2012 - 4:07pm

My father was a mechanic, as were all of my uncles. I even did it for awhile. At no time did I or any of them anthropomorphize a human being into a car, that I heard and it seems a little cliche to be honest. 

 

I bet she's got something under the hood. Really gets your engine running! 

JEFFREY GRANT BARR's picture
JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life December 28, 2012 - 4:19pm

Dialogue: I'm for it!

Jack Campbell Jr.'s picture
Jack Campbell Jr. from Lawrence, KS is reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy December 28, 2012 - 6:40pm

If anything, mechanics refer to cars as human beings. My dad complained this weekend that cars today are rolling entertainment centers. He remembered "when a car was a set of tits, a nice ass, and a big fucking engine you could really get in to." He called his car he had when I was growing up "Tammy Faye" because she looked fine from a distance, but up close you could see the damage. Cars and women (sex) go hand in hand with mechanics in my experience, but it with the car as a woman, rather than the other way around.

Matt Attack's picture
Matt Attack from Richmond, Va. is reading As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner December 28, 2012 - 7:38pm

I always heard boats in that way. I asked my Grandad once why boats were women and he told me: "Because you have to treat em like a lady"

Never cars though.