Dialogue: Friend, or Foe?

Today we answer the question laid out in the post title. As a writer, is dialogue your friend, or your foe? The answer is foe, of course.

I’m just kidding. The answer is obviously friend. I’m sure you know, learned student of the written word that you are, that dialogue is an incredibly important aspect of a book. And I’ll be honest here, it’s also one of the things that I just can’t seem to get right. I struggle regularly to write convincing dialogue, especially on the first time through a story. It just sounds stilted and, well… is shitty too strong a word? No, I think that shitty is quite an apt description, actually. I write shitty dialogue. Now why it’s shitty is a question that demands an answer.

I often find that I’m just writing dialogue for dialogue’s sake, and that’s a problem. Dialogue is a tool. One of many tools at your disposal as a writer. And as a tool, it needs to be used properly. Writing dialogue just to have quotation marks on your page is about as useful as using a hammer just for the sake of swinging one around. Yeah, it’s neat at first–hell, it might even end up being a lot of fun. But in the end you’re just going to be surrounded by a bunch of broken, messed-up shit, and no good explanation for how or why it got there.

So let’s straighten things out.

Dialogue is obviously conversation between two or more characters–between two or more people. So let’s think. How do people talk to each other? And why? Well, the why is not always as clear as you might think. Often people will engage in conversation to discuss something important, that’s true. But more often people talk to avoid discussing something important. Sometimes talking is merely a way to fill silence. Awkward small talk, and empty conversation are important aspects of dialogue that should not be ignored in a book. Your goal is to write realistic characters, right? Too often writers have their characters speak only when it is expository to the plot. I am myself a victim of this trend. It’s tempting, because you want these bastards to move the damn story along. But remember, these are people talking. Their character and personality needs to show through in their speech. Here’s an example of plain old dialogue:

“Where are you going?” Betty asked.

“Out.”

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar. I don’t know.”

“Ray, you can’t… Not now.”

“I’ve done everything you asked, Betty. I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests. I don’t know what else you want from me. I’m going.”

“Ray!”

So there. That’s some straight dialogue that I just made up. It’s okay, I guess. But it needs more flavor, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes back-and-forth dialogue is good. Hemingway sure did plenty of it, and it worked for him. But the words are not always the focus of the conversation. If this written dialogue is supposed to represent two people talking, then we have to think about the way in which they might speak. Right now our selection reads like a bit from a play, and one with very little direction at that. In a play or movie, the actors and director bring a lot to the dialogue. Body language, tone of voice–there are a lot more factors to a conversation than just lines after lines of dialogue. So let’s try again, this time inserting a little bit of description.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I’ve done everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to the doctor. I took the fertility tests.” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty. I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

Now see, I like that a bit better. Don’t get me wrong. Straight dialogue can be nice for circumstances in which the speech is the most important aspect, but more often than not that isn’t the case. When we speak, we say a lot more with our hands, eyes, and tones than we do with our words alone. I mentioned Hemingway above, and I often think of him when writing dialogue. I recall hearing once that he did not think much of descriptive dialogue tags. You’ll find his dialogue scenes rarely flirt with any language more complicated than “he/she said.” He didn’t think anything more was necessary. The man was adamant about this simplicity of language, and I admire him for that.

But he’s wrong. Or well… he’s not entirely right. You see, we don’t just say what we mean to say. People aren’t that simple. Sometimes the expression you wear when you speak reveals more about your words than the words themselves. But why write, “‘I really don’t know,’ he said. He smiled” when “‘I really don’t know,’ he smiled” is so much more to the point? And sometimes the tone and volume of your voice express what you really want to say, even when your tongue is unwilling to speak the truth. So obviously the meaning of the words “Please leave” is drastically different when the tag reads “he snarled” rather than “he pleaded.”

Beyond dialogue tags, there are lots of things that we do when we speak that affect the feeling of the conversation. This is where simple description comes into play. Nodding and smiling out of sincere interest is different from stiffly nodding while forcing your clenched jaw into a rictus grin. Staring out a window while you speak doesn’t convey the same feeling that frenetically pacing the floorboards does. Those things are important to the conversation as a whole, and you can’t afford to omit them or forget them entirely.

In addition to description and dialogue tags, you do have to consider the words being spoken. Rather, you have to consider the words not spoken. Would Ray and Betty say all of those things to one another? Would they mention the doctor and the fertility tests so explicitly? Either Ray or his wife is infertile. They know this, even if the reader doesn’t. Taking this into account is where the real atmosphere of your conversation is cultivated. There’s a certain satisfaction to discovering the topic of a written discussion rather than having it handed to you. Not only that, but if realism is your goal, then you must take into account the way that real people speak. Betty and Ray have known each other for years–I guess that they’re either married or in a committed relationship, though I wouldn’t put it past that bastard Ray to cheat on his poor lady. He really is a jerk. In any case, people don’t speak in completely expository sentences. They leave out details, because they both know the details already. Or they skirt around the details deliberately because they’re made uncomfortable by the topic at hand. So let’s change our little scene once more.

“Where are you going?” Betty asked. Ray paused, his hand frozen on the doorknob, and looked over his shoulder.

“Out,” he said.

“Out where?”

“Out. To a bar.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “I don’t know.”

“Ray.” Betty reached out a hand and approached him slowly. “You can’t… Not now.” He slammed his hand against the door and it shuddered on its hinges. Betty recoiled.

“I did everything you asked,” Ray growled. “I went to see… him. I took the tests. I let that bastard poke his nose into my personal life.”

“He’s not a bastard, Ray. It’s his job to ask.”

“He’s a nosy prick who can’t mind his own business!” His fingers squeezed into a fist, relaxed again. Betty was looking at him with quivering lips and eyes wet with fresh tears. He sighed. “I don’t know what else you want from me, Betty.”

“I want to have a family,” Betty whispered. Ray felt his jaw tighten.

“I’m going.” He twisted the knob and ripped the door open, and walked out into the darkness, not bothering to close the door after himself. Betty made it as far as the door frame before her feet refused to carry her any further. She stood staring out at the cold, black night, eyes searching through welling tears.

“Ray!” she cried, but he was gone.

So instead of exposition, we have hints and little details that clue the reader in on what’s really happening.

You can go too far in realism. The “um”s and “ah”s of real conversation are often too much in written dialogue. The conversation on the page has to flow, so a strict sense of realism is out of place when it distracts from the importance of the dialogue itself. But overall, writing dialogue this way gives the reader a lot more than simple, direct words. Dialogue can’t exist merely to fill up space on a page. It has to tell the reader a lot of things at once. Ideally, it should drive the plot, build the characters, and set the mood of the piece or scene all at once. In most circumstances, it will only do two, or even just one of those things. But part of learning how to write well is learning how to say as little as necessary to tell the story you want. Economy of language means a lot to the efficacy of your writing, and dialogue is no exception.

Well, I think I’ve just given myself a few ideas, and hopefully this post did the same for you. You know when you try to explain something that you don’t know yourself, and find a suitable answer in the process? Well I’m about to go off and write some truly spectacular dialogue, then bask in the warm glow of my revelation. Peace, my children. May your conversations be ever filled with pregnant pauses, tense stares, and loaded questions.

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Building a Book

What the hell is worldbuilding?

That was a rhetorical question, because of course I’m about to tell you. Worldbuilding is something inherent to fantasy. Science fiction too, for that matter–really any genre which places its story in an alternate universe. That universe has to be built, and if I do say so myself, doing so is the most creative, exciting phase of writing a story. I go nuts for maps and fictional histories, and I quite like creating religions and mythologies for the made-up little people that inhabit my made-up little worlds. Those–all of those aspects–are all part of worldbuilding.

But worldbuilding has been for far too long the focus of lots of fantasy authors. Those of us who love roleplaying games and Lord of the Rings and all that nerdy stuff take joy in imagining these strange, foreign worlds, with their own laws of physics and magic, and their own unique kingdoms and cultures. Unfortunately, in the process we’ve ended up neglecting another construction project that should be just as important to the structure of our stories.

Listen up: you need to write characters, people. You need to write people, people! You need interesting, complex, realistic folks to inhabit your fantastic new world, which won’t seem all that fantastic when it’s filled with cardboard characters, such as the wise old wizard, the farmboy with the heroic destiny, and his friend, the horde of slavering orcs.

See there’s two types of realism. You can have a realistic world. I’ll call that Tolkien realism, though that phrase comes with some caveats, to be discussed in a bit. Then you have what I’ll call Abercrombie realism, that is a cast of realistic characters. This one is named after Joe Abercrombie, an author I urge you to read if you wish to see how complex characters painted in shades of gray can make a book fantastic, even without the inclusion of a map (gasp).

So. First, Tolkien realism. Now, Tolkien’s world isn’t entirely realistic. There is no religion, a feature of our actual world that Tolkien deliberately omitted. Additionally, the world isn’t constructed entirely realistically as far as climates and economies are concerned. Some of these things the professor considered after the fact, such as his explanation that the armies of Mordor were fed mostly on fish caught from Mordor’s inland sea–an explanation prompted by people’s questioning how the volcanic environment of Sauron’s kingdom could support any kind of population. Those and other negligible things aside, however, Tolkien paid great attention to the history, language, and culture of his world. The man devised entire languages, wrote whole mythologies, and had a clear origin defined for every race and nation in his Middle Earth. Hell, he even included a little bit of good old-fashioned racism.

The downside to Tolkien’s world? His characters aren’t all exactly relatable humans. The very best example of humanity in his entire book is Gandalf’s insistence that he mustn’t touch the ring, lest it make him more powerful and dangerous than Sauron himself. That is a moment of truly human temptation that I’m quite fond of. Ah, but then of course we have Faramir, the brother of Boromir, who casually ignores the temptations of the ring without a second thought. Immediately we readers think, Hmm… That seems strange. What power does Faramir have that he’s so easily able to resist the ring? But I guess he’s just… noble, or something? Not a shining moment of character realism, and one that the creators of the film adaptation wisely chose to change.

So that’s where Mr. Abercrombie’s brand of realism comes in. This is character realism at its finest. There’s Jezal, a pompous young nobleman who goes through a journey of self-discovery, only to return to his former shallow, selfish ways when given the opportunity to become king at the end of the series. He is somewhat changed by his experiences, and he thinks about things a little differently. But he’s still Jezal; the entire point of Abercrombie’s books is that people are all people, and that they don’t usually change much for the better. Another example: his character Logen, a subversion of the archetypal noble warrior, attempts to make himself a better man and escape his violent past, only to sink right back into his comfortable role when he returns to his homeland. One of my favorite lines comes in the final installment, when Logen is told by an enemy: “Do you know what’s worse than a villain? A villain who thinks he’s a hero. A man like that, there’s nothing he won’t do, and he’ll always find himself an excuse.” Bleak, yes, but superb in terms of realism.

Now let’s be clear. I think that both forms of realism are necessary for a good book. And both authors have their moments using each type. Tolkien has moments of relatable humanity, as mentioned above, and characters that stick with you despite their usually simple personalities; and Abercrombie’s world seems to be well-realized by the author himself–he merely doles out the information to the reader in small doses. But while I recognize that both character and world realism are important for our genre, I’m realizing more and more that character-driven stories mean more than stories driven only by the “Look at the neat stuff I thought up” factor. Characters stay with you–good ones forever–whereas we all outgrow the neat stuff category of fiction eventually.

What we as readers and writers of fantasy need to avoid most are characters that seem shallow. Especially shallow villains. I can’t tell you how tiresome the “Dark Lord” category of villain has become. Dark Lord? What the hell kind of personality is that? How am I supposed to feel anything towards an antagonist whose only motivation is “enslave the earth.” You see, every character can be written sympathetically. I’m fond of saying that one could write a sympathetic story about Hitler. In fact, I’m sure some already have been written. Or you could write a sympathetic story about… Satan, perhaps. Actually, that’s got potential. Guy’s created as an angel, destined to tempt the first humans and be damned to rule over hell, but he doesn’t have the power of free will, so he can’t help but accomplish his awful destiny, even if he doesn’t want to. You could make a very sympathetic story out of that if you tried.

My point is summarized best by a maxim that I try to always keep in mind: “The villain is the hero of the other side.” Nobody’s evil. Nobody’s that black-and-white simple. Everyone’s got his motivations and temptations. Everyone’s got emotions that any reader can relate to.

And including those things is how you make your story stick with your readers. It’s how you keep them turning the pages, and begging you to write more books starring their same beloved characters, in turn bringing you ever closer to your goal of enslaving the earth.

What? I never said fantasy writers had to be sympathetic.