Turns out, writing great dialogue IS EASY

by Ksenia Anske in


Photo by Sophie Ellis

Writing dialogue is one of my biggest fears, partly because English is not my first language, partly because I never studied writing and I tried too hard at first. My dialogue sucked. Well, it still sucks, mostly, but I'm starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I've been reading like crazy to try and crack the secret to great dialogue and why some of it flows and some is so utterly wrong that I'm tempted to put the book down. I've gotten a few ideas lately, one of them the pattern I noticed on any idea being broken down into 3 lines of dialogue, but still it wasn't very clear for me. Until this morning. And it all started with a tweet. Yeah, I know, don't laugh. Tomorrow is my birthday. I was thinking about what would I want for a present, but since I have most things I need, an image of a cat popped into my mind. Because I like cats. I wanted something funny, so the image changed into a flying cat. Because it was funnier than just a cat. Then an image of a capybara joined (because I learned about the existence of this animal a few days ago and am still obviously high on discovery). The resulting tweet sounded like this: "Cats. Flying cats. Flying cats and dancing capybaras. That's what I want for my birthday." And as soon as I posted it, I was, like, OMG! THIS IS IT! It's broken into 3 lines! Well, 4 lines! Anyway! I'll explain.

We don't talk. We try to describe our feelings. This is the simple truth that hit me in the head like a loaded wagon. It's not what we SAY say that matters in great dialogue, it's what the characters are FEELING. Here, hang on, I'll explain even better. Basically, whenever you want to communicate something, at first you feel it, then a thought forms in your head, and only then you shape it into words. And at first you might not get it exactly right, so it takes you a few tries. That's why we like to repeat things instead of just saying it all at once in 1 perfect sentence! (And that's why long perfect sentences read sp badly in dialogue.) Here is how it happened in my mind. I had a feeling. A feeling of something soft and fuzzy and cute. By some unknown association an image of a cat popped into my head. And that's the first thing that I wanted to say. CATS. I can imagine a scene in a book with a group of people staring into fire and this one girl saying: "Cats." Then I can imagine another character responding: "What about them? What cats?" See how the first line is something to respond with, and then, when the character has enough time to think, he (let's make him a he) realizes there are no cats, so what cat is she talking about? And she would say: "Flying cats. Flying cats and dancing capybaras. That's what I want for my birthday." I could write a whole page of dialogue between these characters right now. You know why? Because now I know how. The key is not to WHAT they say, the key is WHO they are. If I know how they form their ideas, I will know what images will pop into their heads and how they will try to communicate it. So I'll try this in my writing today.

We don't talk with words. We talk with our bodies. This is another thing I noticed in great books. Very often it's not what the character says that's important, and what they do and how they behave WHILE they say it. Why? Because that's how it works in real life. We might want to try to say things, but really we're reading each other's body language, because it's how we're wired to communicate. Language is just a medium that helps us, but we get much more from glancing at a person. So, if you read a whole page of dialogue without any description whatsoever as to how a character's pupils dilated, or he started to sweat, or he is averting his eyes, or he is doodling with his finger in the sand, whatever it is, it gives us clues about what's really going on in his head. And then it feels real. So I'm trying to break up my dialogue with descriptions of what is happening to my characters, sometimes not even bothering to spell out all of the dialogue, leaving lines out, and it reads much better.

We don't talk sense, we talk a lot of nonsense. Because it takes a while to be able to articulate a particular thought, it takes us a while to verbalize it, and that's okay. Same with the characters, it takes them several tries. Here, however, lies a crucial difference between real life and prose. In real life we sometimes take forever to figure things out, and we have all the time in the world to do it. Times flows differently in real life than in books. Because books are limited, it's like a concentrated min-life stuffed into approximately 500 pages (or so). Hence, you can't really write the way we talk. You have to throw away the water and leave the essence of it. It's why we read books, it gives us a glimpse into our humanity, into what we're made of, so trim, trim, trim. Be concise, say less than you would in real life, and move on. Basically, remember, it's all about the story. Propel it forward, the dialogue is only part of it, so don't get enamored too much with it. Throw in a few lines, and you're good to go. WE WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT! 

The key takeaway from this for me is, it's all about the characters. I have to know my characters really well to be able to understand what my characters will feel, what they will think about that feeling, and what will they say. That's all there is to it. But it takes time to from complex characters that would behave like real people, that's why it tales forever to write books. So now I feel a little better, because it'll be almost a year by the time I finish Siren Suicides. What do you think? Got any secrets of your own to add for our collective knowledge? Come one, fess up. I won't patent them, I promise.

I publish new posts twice a week. Or something. Subscribe.
I give away my e-books for FREE. Support me. Donate.
I write shorter daily posts on Ello. Follow me.