“And if you think that’s funny…” Writing dialog that does more than tell a story.

WakingWolfeKindleHe dropped, exhausted, into the chair next to my writing desk, his low rider holster digging rudely at the fringe of the cushion. “I heard what you said about me.”

“Get over it,” I muttered without missing a keystroke.

He leaned forward and sneered at me. I felt his glare boring into the side of my head. “You made me sound like damned amateur,” he said, separating out each syllable. “I wouldn’t even trust me based on that.”

I stopped typing and breathed in a cleansing breath before turning to him, smiling. “Get over it,” I whispered and then winked.

When I turned to resume typing, he stood abruptly. Though I continued to type, I wondered if he was about to cross the room and give me a beating. A mild wave of relief flooded my chest as he stomped away.

“Payback’s a bitch,” he said under his breath as he blew out of my study like a rogue wind.

“I wrote a pretty hot sex scene for you in the next chapter,” I yelled at his back before adding, whispered, “right after the torture scene.”

I used to be worried about economy of words. Let’s face it, If you have a penchant for writing, you’ve gone over recommended word counts your entire life. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to perfectly convey the emotion of a rant in a letter to the cable company, or phone company or city hall, only to hit the character limit of the text box you are submitting through.

“Uhg! It was perfect! Why won’t you let me send all of it?!”

Fortunately, as an author, the only limit to the number of words you can use is the attention limit of your reader. Make it interesting and they will read it all… they will beg you for more.

So how do you make dialog that holds attention, line after line, page after page? Well, you have to make it at least as interesting as the rest of the story. Imagine the coolest zingers you’ve ever thought of in your life, created (if you’re like me) ten minutes after the conversation was over. Well guess what? Not only do you have the ability to create the perfect setups for those zingers, but you get to time them perfectly in your story. Do it.

There are a couple of exercises you can try to help you along that path.

1. Plan a point “A” to point “B” conversation. (You can throw in a “C” if you like, but dialog is much more interesting if you keep the story goal simple.)

In the example above, the protagonist isn’t happy with the story and the writer couldn’t care less. That’s the only message that needed to get across. I used a lot of tension to convey:

“I’m not happy with the story,” he said.
“I don’t care,” I replied.

2. Don’t plan the dialog… let it happen. Your characters have personalities, motivations, quirks and hangups of their own. As long as you fit in the “Point A to point B” requirements at some point during the conversation, you can focus on saying what your characters want to say to each other.

I know my characters pretty well… after all, they are based on a combination of people I know in real life (everyone except you…you’re safe.) So I have a very good feel for their natural flow of conversation. I know how they sound when they’re angry, or happy, or sad. Of course, they developed other habits in my head, but I’ve got a pretty good permanent impression of those traits as well. Let them talk the way they would normally talk given the circumstances. Does your character (or the person he/she is based on) leave a room angry and yell? or does he mutter something under his breath? Is it covertly threatening or more direct?

“Payback’s a bitch,” he said under his breath as he blew out of my study like a rogue wind.

3. Don’t be afraid to edit for clarity.  Once you’ve created the scene and the conversation has exploded out of you, go back and make sure the “point A to point B” requirement has been met clearly. If it hasn’t, tweak it, or tone it down. Remember, your reader is going to read it the same way. If it doesn’t flow when you are reading it back to yourself, then it probably won’t do it for your reader either. Shift words around. Cut confusing bits or clarify them with the same wit you used in the dialog.

Always remember that your characters are real people… it’s required. Even if you’ve made them up from scratch, you have to know them the way you know the people in your life–better in fact. You have to understand their motivations intimately. The only way to do that is to think of them as real people with real responses.

Focusing on the conversation and the tone is far more important than the story that’s conveyed. Think of thedesired outcome (the information you wish to deliver) as just the outline for the conversation. The conversation has to be the interesting part. Don’t let the message get buried in the dialog, but don’t treat dialog as just a plot device that has to be “waded through”.

A word on dialog tags: I’m the first to admit I’ve experimented with flowery dialog tags. It’s tempting to do that when you type “said” and “replied” a thousand times in a book. But you have to remember those tags are nearly invisible to the reader, and if you use them as natural pauses in the character’s sentences, they become even more invisible. You can even do away with them all together sometimes, relying instead on action to identify who’s talking.

He dropped, exhausted, into the chair next to my writing desk, his low rider holster digging rudely at the fringe of the cushion. “I heard what you said about me.”

Go not gently: As humans, we usually try to avoid conflict (especially if you are on the down slope of middle aged and the idea of conflict just makes you tired), but as authors, our conflict is what drives the reader forward. Don’t hesitate to be petty, belligerent, angry and jealous in your dialog. Your characters are real but need to be more interesting than the guy in the break room at work–or, if he is the guy in the break room, dig into what his reaction might be if “this” happened, or “that” was said. When it’s too tense for you as you’re writing it, you can always stand up and walk away for a bit. Your reader will love you for it.

Remember, even the best people are assholes sometimes. Give that gift to your characters and it will make them more real to your readers (just be careful to keep the likeable ones likeable…just a little tarnished.)

Have fun. It’s always more fun to read something when you as the author were laughing aloud or tense when you were writing it. It is doubly true if you get the same result when you read it back to yourself.

S.L. Shelton is the author of an Amazon Bestselling Political Thriller Action Espionage Series, (The Scott Wolfe Series). Check him out on Twitter @SLSheltonAuthor or Facebook


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