Conversations With Yourself - How to Tackle Writing Dialogue
I miss my car. Well, I miss talking to myself in my car and hoping other drivers assume I'm just talking on the Bluetooth. Creative writing requires a good balance of being extroverted and introverted.
Extroverted — To observe the world around you.
Introverted — To be uninterrupted as you create.
It's really easy to write shitty dialogue. I mean dialogue that is not necessary, unrealistic, or just awkward. Unless you have a solid argument to back up your character's speech, not many people talk without using contractions.
What sounds more believable? Say it out loud. "I would not trust you." or "I wouldn't trust you."
That's the first step. Say it out loud. Don't limit your conversations with your character to inside your head. It's just as important to write how a character speaks as what a character speaks. Where are the breath breaks? Where are the awkward pauses?
I don't have the heart to find a piece of dialogue that I define as bad, so I've written out my own here.
(Pretext: The girl just explained that she's afraid of dying.)
"What are you thinking?" she asks.
"I'm thinking that you shouldn't be sad about death," I respond.
"Why shouldn't I be sad about death?" she asks.
"It is a waste of time. It's fate. You can't control it and it is a waste to worry about it."
"Do you ever worry about death?"
"No," I say.
"You don't care about death?"
"No, I don't care about death."
"If I told you that you're going to die in ten minutes, you wouldn't care?"
"Yes, I would care but if I were to die in ten minutes, then I'd die and wouldn't be able to care."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I mean because I would be dead."
"Oh, I see."
This dialogue is bland. You don't see the characters' personalities and there is no prose to break it up. This could use some adverbs as well.
Let me try writing this again...
"What?" she asks defensively.
"Well, I don't know," I pause to crack my knuckle. "I don't really think you should be sad about that."
She scoffs. "Why not?"
"Because it's a waste of time. You said it was fate, and it is, so you can't control it and it's a waste to worry about."
"So you're telling me that you never worry about death?"
I shake my head.
"You don't care about death."
"So if I told you that you're going to die in, like, ten minutes, you wouldn't care?"
"Well, I mean, yeah," I say. "I would obviously care if I was going to die in ten minutes, but then I'd die and I wouldn't be able to care."
"What do you mean you 'wouldn't be able to care'?"
"Because I'd be dead."
"I guess. But..." she groans. "Never mind."
How'd I do? Do you get a better feel for the characters' personalities? One is aggressive and passionate, the other is entirely passive.
Think about this — a conversation is a game of tug-of-war, not a ride on a seesaw. The seesaw goes up and down, your turn, my turn, your turn, my turn. The rhythm never changes. In the "bad" dialogue, did you notice how the characters went back and forth, not really responding emotionally to each other, just speaking. Like following a script. But tug-of-war depends on a few elements—how strong or weak the competitors are and the game goes back and forth until someone is strong enough to pull the other over the line.
Dialogue depends on the character. You do not write what you want the character to say, you write what the character would say. If you don't like their response, change the situation or change the character. In the "good" dialogue, every time the narrator speaks, the other character challenges him, tugging on the rope until the end where she gives up and lets go.
In the same story I've just used for good and bad dialogue, I was stuck on the girl's monologue on her fear of death. I wrote it out a few times but it didn't feel raw. Long paragraphs of speech can be difficult because people don't speak like academic essays. I'm very impressed when I meet a person who can spend five minutes talking about something without pausing or stumbling on their words. I'm not going to lie, I wish I could speak like that!
Anyway, I decided to speak this monologue out loud and record it on my phone. I got into character and I took my time, speaking exactly like the narrator was in front of me listening to what I was saying. The result was a crackin' paragraph of dialogue that I wrote out word for word.
“I was just staring at the casket today, just staring at the dead body and knowing that that’s gonna be me some day. You know like, it’s not like you see someone trip in class and you think ‘Oh that’s embarrassing, that’s never gonna happen to me,’ or, I don’t know... That’s a stupid example, but, what happened to my grandpa is going to happen to me and going to happen to everyone else, like that’s fate and it scares the shit out of me... Because, I—I don’t know how I could do it. I don’t know how my grandpa was so strong to accept the darkness. I’m scared. What does it feel like? Where do you go? I don’t even care about the ‘where you go’ part, I just care about the ending. You know, like, is it painful? Or... or are you just ready? You just know and it’s like taking a breath, or just going to sleep at night, like it’s just ‘okay’. But, I’m not okay... with it being ‘okay’.”
My advice to you is to do your research, do your field work! If you want to be a good writer, you can't lock yourself in a basement and write underneath a lone light fixture drinking whisky. There are only so many ideas you can pluck from your mind while staring at a brick wall. Go places you'd never go and do it for the sake of the story. For my PhD, I'm going to pub-crawl to the oldest pubs in the city for research.
I have much more to say about dialogue but for now, I've got an assignment for you.
- Go somewhere public and eavesdrop. Create a character out of what you see and hear.
- Make that character meet a friend somewhere in public and they can only communicate through dialogue. Start with your character staying "You're late." and go from there.
Please let me know how you get on!
*My dialogue is never perfect. You might think this dialogue is shite and that's okay. Maybe you can comment and let me know what I could fix about it. Writing is subjective and that's the best part about it. It brings out the uniqueness in all of us, whether we're writers or readers.