Writing Dialogue

I read Randy Ingermanson’s monthly ezine almost religiously. He’s recently printed a fantastic series of articles on writing dialogue, which I’m going to reprint here in the hopes that it will find and help even more writers. This is stuff I’m working hard to use in my writing, and I believe it makes for much more readable fiction.

If you like this, then you should check out his other writing materials.

Here’s Part I

Dialogue and the Art of War

If you write fiction, then you have probably gone
through a stage where you tried your best to make your
dialogue sound like Real Conversation.

The problem is that Real Conversation is boring! Go
ahead. Test me on this. Next time you’re in the subway
or on the bus or in line at the supermarket, eavesdrop
on the conversations around you. If you’re listening in
on teenage girls, you’ll get something like this:

“And then he said, ‘No way!’ And I’m like, ‘Yes way.'”

“No!”

“Yeah!”

“So whatcha gonna do?”

“I dunno.”

We interrupt this wretched Real Conversation now,
before you die of sleep apnea. Let’s tune in now on two
middle-aged guys talking sports:

“Could be the year for the Dodgers.”

“Yeah, maybe. If they can get a decent #4 in their
pitching rotation.”

“Ain’t gonna happen. They’ll have to do it with
hitting.”

“So whaddaya think about the steroid thing?”

“Terrible. The commissioner shoulda done something ten
years ago.”

Again, this Real Conversation works better than Sominex
at putting you out. If your fiction sounds like this
kind of Real Conversation, then you are slitting your
novel’s throat.

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, duh! It’s obvious! Don’t write Real Conversation.
Write Dialogue!

You’ll notice that I just capitalized the word
Dialogue. I didn’t capitalize it at the beginning of
this article, but I capitalized it here. I did that to
make it clear that in this context it is an RTT
(Randy’s Technical Term). The term Real Conversation is
also an RTT.

I better define those two RTTs. Real Conversation is
that informational sort of back-and-forth that you saw
in the two snippets above. There is no conflict in Real
Conversation, and that’s the problem. Fiction is about
conflict. More precisely, fiction is about characters
in conflict.

Now I’ll say it again: Don’t write Real Conversation.
Write Dialogue.

Real Conversation is RARELY about conflict. Think about
the Real Conversations you’ve had lately. You’ll find
they fall into various boring categories like these:

a) People making small talk to pass the time.

b) People exchanging information.

c) People avoiding conflict.

d) People trying to solve a problem.
Why are these boring? Simple. Look for the conflict in
each one:

Small talk has zero conflict. Don’t put small talk into
your fiction! It’s a killer.

Exchanging information also usually has no conflict. If
one of the parties is trying to HIDE information, then
there is conflict. If you MUST write a Dialogue in
which information gets exchanged, then make the
informer do his best to avoid informing the informee.

Avoiding conflict also has no conflict, unless you
subtext the conflict. See, for example, just about any
scene in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. If you like subtexted
conflict (and I do), you’ll love Jane Austen.

There CAN be conflict when people are trying to solve a
problem, depending on whether the problem is easy or
hard (and whether one of the players isn’t too keen on
the getting the problem solved). If you’re going to
solve a problem in Dialogue, then make it a nasty,
vicious, horrible problem. Or make one of the players
an obstructionist who would find it disastrous for the
problem to actually BE solved.

The strange thing is that every author is tempted to
put some Real Conversation into their novel, especially
early in the story before the characters have figured
out what the conflict is about. There’s a remarkable
example of deadly dull Real Conversation in RED STORM
RISING, by Tom Clancy and Larry Bond.

The book opens with an exciting sequence in which
Islamic terrorists destroy a Soviet oil refinery,
drastically cutting Soviet oil production (and
eventually leading up to World War III). Meanwhile,
over in the US, we meet Our Hero, Bob Toland, who
hasn’t quite figured out that he’s the star of an
international bestseller yet. Bob is engaging in some
truly wretched Real Conversation, which I quote here
verbatim:

Bob Toland frowned at his spice cake. I shouldn’t be
eating dessert, the intelligence analyst reminded
himself. But the National Security Agency commissary
served this only once a week, and spice cake was his
favorite, and it was only about two hundred calories.
That was all. An extra five minutes on the exercise
bike when he got home.

“What did you think of that article in the paper, Bob?”
a co-worker asked.

“The oil-field thing?” Toland rechecked the man’s
security badge. He wasn’t cleared for satellite
intelligence. “Sounds like they had themselves quite a
fire.”

“You didn’t see anything official on it?”

“Let’s just say that the leak in the papers came from a
higher security clearance than I have.”

“Top Secret–Press?” Both men laughed.

“Something like that. The story had information that I
haven’t seen,” Toland said, speaking the truth, mostly.
The fire was out, and people in his department had been
speculating on how Ivan had put it out so fast.
“Shouldn’t hurt them too bad. I mean, they don’t have
mi11ions of people taking to the road on summer
vacations, do they?”

“Not hardly. How’s the cake?”

“Not bad.” Toland smiled, already wondering if he
needed the extra time on the bike.

Randy sez: Oh, Lordy, Lordy! Spice cake? Exercise
bike? Where is a mean old editor with a blue pencil
when you need him? This Real Conversation sucks, to be
perfectly blunt. There is no Dialogue here, no
conflict. There is a hint that maybe Toland knows
something that he’s not telling, but it’s so far
submerged that it’s useless.

I remember reading this book when it first came out.
The first scenes read so fast I could hardly flip the
pages fast enough. Then I got to this scene and WHACK!
It felt like I was swimming in sand. There is NOTHING
go on here! Spice cake? An overweight NSA analyst?
Journalist jokes? Please, Tom, give us some Dialogue
here!

And what’s the cure for this scene, you may be asking?
Simple. Cut it. There is no hope for a scene like this.
No conflict. No opposing interests. No nothing. Neither
character really gives a rip about this dialogue, so
why should the reader? Scissor this monstrosity right
out of the manuscript and you have a better novel.

Luckily for Tom, he already had about a billion fans
from his previous book, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER. Plus
this novel began with some serious zing. But what if
this was Tom’s first novel? What if he’d started out
the book with this Real Conversation? Poor Tom would
have sunk like an Elbonian sub.

Let me say it straight. Dialogue is war. There is never
an excuse for writing Real Conversation that has no
conflict in it. Such informational tripe is not
Dialogue. Slash it.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s perfectly legitimate to write
Dialogue that ALSO transmits information or reveals
character or backstory or the story world. But all
Dialogue had better have conflict in it FIRST. That
means two characters talking who have opposing
interests.

If you look at the Real Conversation above, you see
that that’s exactly what’s missing. Bob Toland’s
interest is the spice cake. (And how pitiful is that?)
The unnamed co-worker’s interest is to make small talk
about the fire, which he doesn’t think is serious. (And
how much more pitiful is that?) These are different
interests, but they are not in opposition. No conflict.
No Dialogue.

If you’re Tom Clancy, you can get away with this
(except that you will still be mocked in the Advanced
Fiction Writing E-zine if you write this badly). But
you aren’t Tom. Neither am I. Write Dialogue, not Real
Conversation.

If you have my Fiction 101 CD, you’ll be delighted
beyond words to be reminded that I discuss the
fundamentals of Dialogue in lecture #6. If you don’t
have my Fiction 101 CD, I invite you to listen to
lecture #1 for free on my web site:

http://www.kickstartcart.com/app/adtrack.asp?AdID=214702

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 5000 readers, every month. If
you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com . Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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