Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Writing Dialogue: Shannon Style

Okay, I had a request from a follower to talk about my methods for writing dialogue, so I'm going to give it a try. But I should probably preface this by saying that the title of the post is a little bit of a misnomer. I will be talking about writing dialogue, but I won't be talking about how *I* write dialogue, because I honestly don't know how I write most of the dialogue I do. I write dialogue almost completely unconsciously. (No really, I can't tell you how often I stare at the screen and think: where did THAT come from?)

Thanks to all my character building exercises (and my way too vivid imagination--my characters are so real they talk to me) I don't really spend a whole lot of time thinking: what would the character say here? I just know. In fact, I usually get so lost in the scene that it's like I can't type fast enough to get the conversation down, and I only really know what I wrote once I go back and reread.

That doesn't mean I don't have to revise though. Usually I have to cut at least a third of the dialogue simply because the characters rambled on way longer than they needed to. And sometimes I'll have to revise because the character(s) hijacked the scene and took the emotions somewhere I don't want them to go, so I have to step in and find a way to stop them from saying what they seem to want to say. (Yes, I realize how crazy I sound. I swear I'm relatively sane.)

But none of that is, I'm sure, particularly helpful to any of you, since I have a feeling most of you are far more normal than that. I do maintain, however, that one of the key elements to writing dialogue is knowing your characters.

I know filling out character profiles can feel like drudgery, but it is so worth it. So if you're struggling with dialogue, that's my first and best piece of advice. Step back and get to know your characters better. Figure out what makes them THEM, what makes them different from everyone else. Their dialogue usually comes naturally after that. (You can find more info on how I build my characters HERE.)

I'm sure that's still not enough, though, so I'm also going to share three tricks I learned in film school (screenplays are allllllllllll about the dialogue), that I have occasionally used to shine up some conversations in difficult scenes:

Remove the dialogue tags and reread: One of the hallmarks of good dialogue--imho--is that it needs to be specific to the character. Your reader should know who's talking just from the way the dialogue is worded, without needing a dialogue tag to tell them. And dialogue should never be interchangeable between characters. Each character should have their own distinct "voice." So the best way to check that is to remove all the dialogue tags and reread the scene to see if it's easy to figure out who's saying what (and don't worry, you'll put them back in when you're done). If you can tell who's talking without being confused, you probably have the dialogue right. But if you have to stop and think, "who's saying this?" you need to revise.

Act out the dialogue out loud: I know most of you probably read your draft out loud to yourself before you declare it, "done" (and if you don't, you should try it. It's AMAZING what you find that way). But that's not quite what I mean. I mean: pretend you're auditioning for a play and the scene you're performing is your book. Read the lines that way, attempting to convey the emotion or comedic timing or verbal cadence of the characters. I know it's embarrassing (best to do this one when no one else is around) and I know we're not all actors, so it probably won't be an Oscar-worthy performance. But it doesn't have to be. You'll still be able to spot problems, even if your acting skills leave much to be desired. If there's no way you can say what's supposed to be a sweet, romantic line without giggling, well...that tells you something, doesn't it? Or if the sad lines don't really feel sad. Or if the jokes don't feel funny. You really get a sense for what feels like real, believable conversation when you do this. Give it a try if you're struggling with your scenes.

Ask yourself: what's the character's motivation?: "What's my motivation" is a classic actor cliche for a reason. They need to know why the character says or does the things they do, so they can understand it  and be able to perform it. So when I was studying screenwriting, it was drilled into me that I needed to know the motivation behind every line or gesture, because the actor might ask me about it. And it was amazing how often, when I analyzed my scene from that perspective, I found out the answer was simply, "I don't know." Not good enough. Take the time to really think about why the character says what they do. And if you can't find a reason for it, change what they say to something that does have a reason. Totally takes the scene to a whole other level.

I wish I had a more magic formula than that--or that I could really explain how my dialogue appears on the page--but that's kind of the best I can do. I hope it helps.

Any of you have any other suggestions for writing dialogue that I missed? Please, help a girl out and share your secrets in the comments!

Oh, and if there's any particular aspect of the way I write you'd like me to cover in this Shannon Style series, (or even other stuff like queries, blogging, Twitter, whatevs) feel free to leave me a suggestion in the comments. I have a bunch of them planned already, but I'm always open for more ideas. :)

39 comments:

  1. That's all great advice! Thanks. So, in other words, we need to get in touch with our inner Anne of Green Gables and dramatically read our manuscript? :)

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  2. Your advice from writing screenwriting is so good. I admit that I still struggle with the different voices issue. Maybe you can do a post on that sometime.

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  3. Shannon,

    I can't thank you enough for this post. The piece about removing the dialogue tags to check out voice will be a huge help for me. Thank you1

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  4. Shannon--Some great advice here that I'll definitely put to good use! Thanks! ;)

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  5. I think you nailed it with the removing dialogue tags advice. Each character ought to have a distinct enough voice to be able to tell them apart because people have a distinct enough voice. And I don't mean the way they sound. I mean the diction they use, what kind of slang they are familiar with, how long or short winded they are, how comfortable they are with being honest.

    I don't do character sheets (says the guy with 1 unfinished novel) but I do think about and hope I know such things about all my characters in my head. It's easier for me to just remember it because it would ruin me if I had to look it up while writing (I tend to be feast or famine when it comes to inspiration).

    Another thing that really helps me, and this isn't always necessary because not all books have as large of an ensemble cast as mine, is sometimes replacing dialogue tags with visual reminders about who is speaking. This can be especially helpful if three or more characters are involved in a conversation.

    Great advice! Thanks a million Shannon.

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  6. You're not crazy. I talk to my characters all the time. And then they argue back.

    Here's a tip from my critter -- use the names of the characters in dialogue only when making a point.

    "Anne, I told you not to do that!"
    "But Bob, I really wanted to!"

    Because most of the time when we talk to people we don't use their names.

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  7. Great tips, Shannon! Until recently, I've let my characters develop as I write my story. But I've noticed that putting more thought into the way they are, and how that affects the story makes their dialogue and conflict become much more natural -- and sometimes they surprise me!

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  8. Great tips! I think something I do after the fact is look for places where a proper sentence actually 'sounds' off in terms of the back and forth.

    "Why did you come here?" Brendan asked, scanning the headstones and worn angel statues. "It's not exactly the mall, you know?"

    "To be alone. It seemed like a good place to think." I yanked on my gloves. Maybe he'd get the hint.

    Here in the response, To be alone. is clearly a fragment, but often a clipped response is how someone would naturally answer when they feel judged. A proper sentence would not convey the same emotional punch.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

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  9. I think knowing your characters is the key. And listening to people talk! And reading, reading, reading books with good dialogue. I did all this when I was very young, I've lived a long time, so dialogues are in my.

    Good post. Thanks!
    Ann Best, Long Journey Home

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  10. This is perfect, perfect, perfect! Exactly what I needed. I need to dramatically read my dialogue out loud, because there are so many parts I'm not sure about. Thank you so much!

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  11. Excellent advice, Shannon.
    I do read aloud but the acting it out part is even better!

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  12. Great advice about removing the dialog tags. I have trouble with "voice" so I think I'll try this. I do the acting out already. I prefer to read my dialog that way when I finish a scene. It makes a huge difference.

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  13. Giving each character a distinct voice was something I struggled with for many years, but as I'm maturing as a writer, the characters are coming to be more and more complete. The voice just falls in with it.

    I always just try to convey as much as I can in as few words as possible.

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  14. Love the idea of removing the dialogue tags as a voice check. Great advice. Thanks!

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  15. Lovely advice - thank you for sharing!! Wow!

    I'd love to try the auditioning exercise - I tend to mutter the stuff out to myself!!

    Being extremely nosey I also tend to earwig a lot and take down any bits of interesting conversation verbatim too!!

    Take care
    x

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  16. Great stuff here! I was definitely adding in too many dialogue tags for a while, and sometimes my characters sound alike. I have to work at making them in their own "voice."

    Reading each character's lines through the novel helps, too (one read-through for each character to help them be consistent).

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  17. Yes, yes, and even more yes! I run dialogue in my head all the time, and my first drafts are usually 80% dialogue, more like a script. It's amazing how succinct and tight your narrative becomes when you have it come through in the dialogue first.

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  18. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who has characters who hijack the scenes. Those pesky little people. When will they ever learn? Anyway, great tips!

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  19. This was pure awesomesauce, #1. I knew you'd have some tips lurking up your sleeves for us. The screenplay tips are exactly what I needed, and from the looks of this comment thread, what everyone else needed too! You rawk!! :-)

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  20. So glad I didn't miss this post, I love your taking the tags away idea. Excellent!

    Do you have any advice for making the dialogue old enough for MG when you've been writing PB for a while. I'm thinking you are just going to say read, read, read.

    I've just read a sing-songy chicken MG, that's probably the maturity level I'm looking at.

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  21. I completely agree with knowing your character to write good dialogue. My dialogue tends to get better toward the end of a first draft, because I know my characters better-- so I then have to go back and rewrite the not quite in character dialogue from the beginning!

    Thanks for sharing these tips.

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  22. These are fantastic tips, Shannon - especially the one that dialogue must be specific to the character. Thank you!

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  23. Sometimes--if a conversation is really flowing well--I drop the dialogue tags altogether while I'm writing and end up with just the dialogue. It's fun doing that--and I get to see if my characters' voices are working the way they should be.

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  24. Fexcellent! For me, one of the exercises I do (don't laugh. I do some things) is write a scene where my MC has to have a heated conversation. What comes out?

    This helps me get to know my character better so I can know what they'd say in my book.

    Then I write a scene where there is no dialog. This helps me realized what my MC notices. Colors, etc.

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  25. Great advice! I need to do more of these things sometimes....

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  26. This is awesome advice!!! Thank you! I am going to try some of the exercises but I tend to write the dialogue unconsciously too. Although I bet your's is a lot better.

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  27. Great advice. I do voice journals before I start a draft to get to know my characters.

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  28. I've never heard the tip about removing the dialogue tags. Great tips, thanks!

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  29. Saying the dialogue out loud (with one or more of my test readers) is what helps me the most!

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  30. Good advice. Thanks. But taking out the tags? Eeek! I'm going to have to try that.

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  31. Great post today, Shannon! Excellent advice. You rock. =)

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  32. Love the idea to remove the dialogue tags to nail each character's voice. So gonna start doing that from now on.

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  33. Awesome reminders! I think for me personally, knowing my characters deepest fears and greatest longings helps me to identify their individual voice better.

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  34. Great advice. I loved my screenwriting class in college and one of my favorite writing books is actually for screenwriters. But I'm really going to have to try writing my dialogue while unconscious :) Some of my best ideas have come while I'm sleeping!

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  35. Thanks so much for this post! I am having a horrible time with my dialogue.. I can think it, and by the time it hits paper, it's crap! lol..

    I am pushing through.. thanks for the tips!

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  36. Great tips! This post is timely for me because I started writing a scene last night, in which a new character is introduced and I was having trouble with the dialogue. It's because I need to sit down and get to know this character better.

    I love reading my work out loud and acting out the characters. It's so fun! :)

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