Turns out, writing great dialogue IS EASY

by Ksenia Anske


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.

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On living, dying, and WRITING

by Ksenia Anske


Photo by Sara Anne Haas

Yesterday my typical writing schedule got thrown out of whack because my boyfriend's dad rolled his 1978 International Scout into a ditch and we scrambled to go see him. By the time we got there he was discharged from the hospital with no injuries, a bruised ear and a scratched head. We stayed all day and on our way back came across a man who died perhaps a few minutes ago, smack in the middle of a dark road from being hit by a truck. We stopped, helped cover him up, called 911, diverted traffic and gave info to cops. Needless to say, I got no writing done, but a lot of thinking and shaking and remembering. Growing up in Russia I brushed with death a lot. From all of those instances, three stories stand out for me as the scariest: being chased (not clear what the guy wanted to do to me, I escaped into a subway car), seeing a man beaten to death (I was escorted gently away from the scene with a mutual understanding that I'll keep my mouth shut), and having a relative stubbed multiple times with a knife in his own apartment and left to bleed to death (I never got to go see the scene, and perhaps it's for the best).

Two years ago I was hit by a truck while biking home and woke up in the hospital knowing that I can't wait anymore to do what I want to do - TO WRITE. Please don't wait for something terrible to happen to you like it did to me to realize that life is short. If you want to write, WRITE NOW. There is no tomorrow.

On living. For whatever reason we think that we will live forever, and if not forever, at least for a long long time. We make grandiose plans, finish school, go to college, pursue a career, marry, have children, buy the house, the car, the TV, the whatever else constitutes successful living in our mind planted there by previous generations, parents, friends, media. At some point though, along that beautiful road, we realize that things are not as pretty as we thought they are and start wondering what the hell happened and why aren't we happy or at least why does it feel like we're trying to do something meaningful but it doesn't feel like that. Typically, we ignore the feeling and continue chugging along, because, of course, having kids is an enormous joy, and if we happen to be in a good marriage, that brings joy and love also. But many times it doesn't. Since I have divorced two years ago, I've seen friends around me go through the same ordeal like popping popcorn. It was crazy! It was like a new fad. I couldn't believe it. Then another thing happened. Since I quit my career to write full time, a ton of friends and strangers started coming out of the woodwork and talking to me about how they also want to quit and do art and how I did it and why and do I have any advice, etc, etc. This made me think, where did we go wrong with this perfect life picture? And I got it. We forgot somehow that LIVING means FEELING, and there isn't much you can feel in a cubicle pushing paper around, can you? So perhaps it's time you reevaluate the reason why you LIVE? Like, right now?

On dying. We tend to brush this thought about dying aside, like, yeah, yeah, I know I will die, but it will be some day, some time, right now I'm more interested in figuring out if I need new shoes or a new purse or a new <insert an item from your wish list>. Oh, and we wait for the New Year to roll around to make all kinds of resolutions that are supposed to distance us from death, like start exercising every day, for example. Great. We forget, however, that death doesn't work this way. Death strikes when you least expect it. There is no meaning behind it, no reason, no deep understanding. It's us who add all that crap to it, because we're scared shitless of dying and are trying to explain it so we'll feel better. Well, guess what, there is no explaining it except that it will happen and you have no idea when, and not because your neighbor gave you an evil stare or a stupid driver decided that morning that he was upset enough to drive very fast, to blow off steam and hit someone. Funny enough, when it does strike, we have this scared bunny look on our faces, waking up to reality, setting aside all things that don't matter and scurrying along to do all the things that DO matter lest we're next. But, as things calm down, somehow along the way we forget our fear and carry on like we did before, until something else happens. Well, stop waiting and START WRITING NOW. Because there is no tomorrow and, really, you have no idea how much time you have left.

On writing. Of all things to do with your life, why write? Because since we stopped being little communities of about 100 to 150 people with no possessions and not a care in the world, about, oh, 10,000 years ago or so, we lost the source of our happiness, the daily human interaction that we need to feel good, namely, loving each other. Yes, it was primitive, yes, we did die from being chased by tigers, but we didn't lock ourselves up in our cars and homes and offices and didn't even know words like depression or suicide (well, we didn't know many other words either, but that's a whole another topic). Anyway, we loved, we multiplied, there were too many of us to walk around freely so we settled. Suddenly, our time became scarce because instead of quickly hunting and gathering stuff to eat with periods of long laziness in between, we needed to spend time growing food. Lovely. The need to be connected didn't go anywhere, though, so what did we do? We developed our language more and more to TELL each other how we feel, since we couldn't randomly hug 150 people every day anymore (this is a theory, of course, and I picked it up in an awesome book called SEX AT DAWN, but it makes sense). We developed to the point of finally factory-producing food and having free time to do art, to express how we feel and share it. That's why art makes us feel good - it's all those pent up emotions that by our new society rules are unacceptable. Try randomly running up to people on the street to hug them or to yell at them depending on your mood, see what happens. This is why we go to Burning Man or some other various retreats or <insert the one event you wanted to go to, to connect with people>. Writing happens to be a form of art, one that is most acceptable because not every idiot can draw but every idiot can write because every idiot can talk (I do feel like an idiot every day, so don't take offense). Well, then, still not convinced? What's stopping you?

I must say, one other reason I write is to assure myself of my own humanity, to make sure I'm not a robot and I feel, to process what happened and to wish for something else to happen. Brushing with death yesterday made me feel a lot of stuff, but I pushed it down to function. Writing this today made me process all those feelings and they are gone now. I'm free to feel something new, to gaze at the sky or at flowers or, which I'm going to do right now, to keep writing. To start on Chapter 5 of my novel draft. And what about you? What are you going to do after reading this?

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