On Writing Dialogue

One of my favorite things to do when I’m rewatching movies and tv shows (such as we’re currently doing with Star Wars: Rebels) is to listen to the dialogue. When I watch something for the first time, I’m usually paying more attention to how the plot is unfolding than I am with what’s being said, so I may miss out on a few clues here and there. But that’s okay…the repeated watching is where I pay more attention.

Part of that is because I now know what’s going to happen in the plot. This gives me more time to listen to the nuances of the dialogue. A character that might hint that they’re not who they seem. A line reading that might have been mundane at first listen, but reveals a major clue to a scene that happens later on, maybe even two or three chapters or episodes (or even a full season!) from that point.

Another part of that is I get to listen to the word choice and the delivery, and how it makes each character unique. As with SW:Rebels, Kanan is often gruff, conservative and overly anxious, especially towards Ezra. Ezra, on the other hand, goes through an interesting metamorphosis from a plucky and erratic kid to a cranky and highly irritable teenager. And my all-time favorite character from the show, the pirate Hondo Ohnaka, has a quick and often hilarious wit that keeps everyone slightly off-course:

It took me several years to figure out how to write dialogue correctly. As with most young writers just starting out, I tended to imprint my own voice and mannerisms onto every character, which meant that there were far too many me-isms like bad puns, music references and wild shifting of subjects. It took me some time to realize I was doing it the wrong way: what I had to do was figure out who that particular character was and make their words unique to them.

Now? It’s one of my favorite parts of writing projects and exercises. One fun 750Words exercise of mine is to tell a short story that consists only of dialogue without any dialogue tags. This forces me to think about the story in a different way: how to evoke action and emotion only using someone’s words. Things like word choice, the flow of the dialogue and the delivery are shifted front and center.

When writing Diwa and Kaffi, I knew that each character had to have a unique voice, not only because they’re different in certain ways, but because they’re all different beings. The human Diwa is part Filipino and slips into Tagalog whenever he’s emotional or with his family. The dragon-like tintrite Kaffi speaks in slow, measured sentences but eases up considerably when he talks with Diwa. The bird/reptilian-like Anna-Nassi is often relentlessly happy and often talks too loud. The psychic-vampire Cole talks quietly but his sentences get choppy when he gets anxious or overexcited.

I wanted to let the characters tell me who they were, and I let a lot of these dialogue tics and come naturally. I would give them just a few rules: Cole, for instance, suffers from a kind of syndrome that occasionally affects his energy consumption and retention. A flare-up would cause his speech patterns to seize up. This, in turn, would inform the direction and the pacing of the plot arcs; Cole’s personal arc in this story becomes his learning how to work past this physical handicap, alone and with the help of his friends.

This is the reason why writing dialogue is so much fun for me: I get to learn who these characters are, quite often without any planning ahead of time. In turn, they give me insight on how they would react when I place them in certain situations important to the overall story arc. I’m always pleasantly surprised when this happens, because it makes the story unique, sometimes unexpectedly so.

On Writing: Rejection Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

For those of you that have been following along for the last few years (or decade or so) with my grand scheme of getting the Bridgetown Trilogy published, today was an interesting day.

Angry Robot Books has had some kind of “Open Door” special event over the past few years in which they would accept unsolicited submissions* until a set date. As it so happened, I had just finished up a major revision of A Division of Souls, and thought this would be a perfect opportunity. I speedily worked through the rest of the revision and sent it in with about two weeks left to go before the December 31 deadline. You may have heard they had a bit of a business shake-up a few months ago**, which caused a significant delay in the reading and accepting process. I’m fine with that, especially as they took the time to follow up with an email informing us they would still read all the submissions.

This morning, I received an email stating that they have decided to pass on the novel.

Now, I’m well aware that this would most likely be the case, for a few reasons: a) they had over a thousand entries this time out (MUCH higher than previous Open Doors), b) digging through a high number of entries to find that one shining piece of gold is normal in the publishing biz, and c) I’ll readily admit that it could still use work. More on that in a few. The long and short of it is, this is not my first rejection, and will most likely not be my last. This is just part of the game.

Am I bummed? Of course, but not overly so. You might say I’m actually a bit relieved, as this gives me the freedom to tidy it up a bit more and shop it elsewhere now.*** Given that I’ve been working on this project off and on for way too long (twenty, seventeen, fourteen, or seven years, depending on the version you ask about and whether or not you count interim years of stasis), I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about how I would want to see this book out in the wild. Between those years in the early 00’s where I sent it out to various agents and publishers, and now, where self-publishing has become a viable, more professional and accessible option, my options have actually expanded.

I’m actually kind of happy that Angry Robot took the time not only to read the first four chapters of A Division of Souls, but upon rejection went so far to state that they felt “the dialogue could use work, as it reads as too artificial, not natural enough” as part of the reason.

Honestly? That’s the best thing a publisher has ever said to me in all my years of being a writer.

In all the rejection letters I’ve ever received from both publishers and agents, I’ve only received the variation of the “not for us” form letter. Which is all well and good–I’m okay with those too, because I’m pretty sure they at least took a cursory look at it. But this is the first time I’ve actually received something that says “hey, it’s not for us…but here’s what you might want to fix/focus on in the future.”

To me, that means two things: they took my submission seriously, and that they took the time to let me know what didn’t work, even if it was one out of many possible issues that could be wrong with it. And that makes all the difference.

So what are my future plans for the Bridgetown Trilogy? Am I going to make good with the fake cover I made on the previous post and go self-pub? Am I going to be the stubborn bastard that I am, revise AGAIN and find a new home for it? It’s up in the air, really. I’m keeping my options open. Yet another recent reread has shown that some of the dialogue and prose is indeed a bit stiff, and oddly about halfway through, the default reaction for many characters seem to be that of sighing in frustration. Eesh!

One thing’s for sure, I’m not going to ragequit this writing life. I love it too damn much to give up now.

Learn from mistakes. Listen and process the critiques. And make the best damn piece of art you can.

* – For those unaware, ‘unsolicited submissions’ means that the publisher would accept manuscripts cold, rather than through agents or an agreed-upon offer. I highly suggest studying up on the submission guidelines of various publishers and agents to understand what’s needed–some want specific things and/or in specific formats, others will take printed copies, etc. Following their guidelines makes them happy and makes you look like a pro.

** – Short version: They closed down their YA and Mystery imprints earlier this year, and changed ownership last month. Not holding this against them, and I hope for the best, as they have quite a number of great titles out there that are definitely worth checking out.

*** – I would love to go into detail here about multiple submissions, but I’ll save it for a future entry. Suffice it to say, I purposely waited on this one to force myself to start working on other projects on the interim, which has worked out well so far.

On Dialogue: Realism, Conversation and How to Get It

I admit, I love writing dialogue.  To me, that’s where the characters really blossom and show their true colors, even if they’re speaking evasively.  They can’t help but reveal parts of themselves.  I actually enjoy passages in books where there’s a heavy conversation going on.  If it’s done well, it’s like the story has just decided to shift gears and rev the engine a little, show off a bit, and lets us see how characters interact.  And if it’s done really well, the writer can even get away with a bit of exposition while they’re at it.

It does take practice to write good dialogue, though.  You have to be a good listener of course, but you also need to be able to know what you’re listening for.  For example:

1.  You don’t want them to sound like you.

I fell prey to this quite often when I was starting out.  All my characters sounded like townies from central Massachusetts, quick with a smartass remark or a localism, generally friendly to everyone, and so on.  I grew out of that when I learned how to create unique characters.  I kind of cheated on this while writing True Faith, basing many characters off of real actors and actresses of the time.  One character was based on Denis Leary, so he was often abrasive and unafraid to say questionable things; another on Christian Slater’s Heathers character so he often sounded slimy and untrustworthy. That was the only project where I went out of my way to create a cast list like that, but it definitely made me listen closer to actual conversation.

2. Don’t just listen to the words.

That was also in 1995, the year I worked at a theater chain, so I was able to watch pretty much all the blockbusters that year for free, and that’s where I really started focusing on dialogue.  Movies can often be a great study guide.  You don’t always need to watch the classics repeatedly like I did in college; pick out your favorite movies and study them.  And don’t just listen to the words; listen to the pacing, the delivery, the intent.  Listen to the way someone evades answering a question, or the reason why they’ve raised their voice.  They’re not just throwing words at us, there’s meaning behind them.  Dialogue can help drive the story just as well as prose can; find out how your characters can do that for you.

3. Be realistic, but not too realistic.

One of the most irritating things I’ve seen over the last decade or so is the literal quote in news stories.  Say you’re reading coverage about a congressman explaining why they voted as they did; what we’d like to see is an easy-to-read quote: “We deliberated long and hard on this issue, and to tell the truth, we almost couldn’t make it pass…but we were relieved when it did.”

But what we’ll sometimes get in the coverage is this:  “We, uh. We deliberated long and hard, you know, on this, the issue.  We–to tell the truth, I’ll say this, we almost couldn’t–it nearly didn’t pass.  But we were relieved when it, when it did.”

Sure, if you want to quote a person exactly and without edits, by all means, go right ahead.  I understand that you may be doing so to avoid any possible misquotation.  But as you can see from the previous paragraph, it’s hard as hell to read.  Your brain gets impatient because you already know what they’re going to say before they said it, and you lose interest before you’re even done.

Some writers can get away with that kind of dialogue, especially in film, and depending on your tastes, it works or it doesn’t.  It really does depend on the story, because the dialogue needs to flow just as smoothly as the prose does.

Let’s highlight that: the dialogue needs to flow just as smoothly as the prose does.

The reason for this is that, more than anything else, you’re telling a story, and nothing takes you out of a story quicker than a passage that feels desperately out of place, yes?  It can be tricky sometimes, especially if you’re writing jerky dialogue on purpose (say, the character has a stutter or is too nervous around others), but at the same time, it needs to be able to sustain the interest.

Of course, there’s always the caveat: if the dialogue is being used as a plot device–say, the character says something shocking and unexpected–if you can pull it off, go for it.

That said, dialogue can be just as tricky as prose, but at the same time, it can be a lot of fun.  Experiment with it, figure out how it best works for you and your stories.

*    *    *

Here’s a few of my personal exercises on learning how to write dialogue:

1.  Watch movies and certain television shows.  I’ve already talked about movies, but some tv shows work too.  I’m talking about mysteries, dramas, finite series; shows that not just tell a half-hour or hour long story, but have an arc that ties the whole season or series together.  Listen to how the characters speak to each other over the course of the series.  Does their friendship deteriorate or grow stronger?  Why are they growing nervous around them when they speak?

2. Try writing a short story with nothing but dialogue–no dialogue tags, no description, nothing, just the characters speaking.  Trust me, it can work.  I tried it a few times for my daily words exercise some time ago and posted an example at my LiveJournal, and I had a hell of a fun time writing it.  By limiting the extremities, I forced myself to tell the story through what the two characters were saying.  A few hints at the setting, who they were, what kind of society they lived in, just by having them talk to each other.  It’s not nearly as hard as you think–in fact, it was a hell of a lot of fun to do, and well worth trying.

3. Real life listening.  My wife and I do a lot of walking and taking the bus around our city, and we both have a habit of catching snippets of other peoples’ conversations.  We’re not spying or being rude; we’re simply catching some of what they say to their friends as they pass by.  We’ve heard all sorts of great gems from tourists and locals alike, especially if they’re heard out of context.  Not only are they great for story prompts, they may influence how you see the characters speaking such things.