I must have at least thirty books on writing, some about mysteries, some about romance, some about horror, but most are on the art of writing. My latest acquisition is called Now Write! Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror edited by Laurie Lamson. It‘s one of a series of Now Write anthologies filled with pages of excellent writing tips from successful writers and writing teachers. One of the things I love about it is the length of each author’s contribution, only a few pages including an easy exercise at the end. My attention span for How-To books tanks after about ten pages.
One of the writers, Kealan Patrick Burke, wrote about crafting dialogue as his cure for writer’s block. He suggested using your surroundings to find a bit of dialogue, whether from random pieces of conversation you overhear or by using your imagination to write the conversation you think people are having. He offered a funny example with a man in conversation with his dog.
It started me thinking. Dialogue is one of my favorite writing techniques. It has benefits for both reader and writer. For the reader, dialogue reveals a different view of the characters and pulls along the threads of story elements providing romantic tension, mystery questions, or building suspense. As a writer, I find that the dialogue helps me to flesh out my characters and make them more human. Of course, with all conversations, I have a goal in mind. I want the reader to see each character’s personality when interacting with others, and I want introduce new information, sometimes back story.
But something unexpected often happens in my dialogue. By unexpected, I mean that one or both of my characters reveal something to me that I didn’t know beforehand. For instance I have one character, male, who doesn’t trust women. I didn’t realize why until I heard him explain to the protagonist that his mother had abandoned the family when he was in his teens and had later died tragically. I knew his mother had died, but the fact that she had abandoned her family was a complete surprise to me.
Dialogue also helps me add emotion to my stories. Through my characters’ conversations, I introduce excitement, anger, fear, sorrow or humor into the scene. Dialogue also works for character description. Instead of saying John is a smart-ass; I have him show it by mouthing off to Mary. Yech! Some of them don’t know when to shut up.
As I’m writing this piece, I’m thinking of having my own conversation with a few of my characters to see what they’ve been up to in the past and what they might have planned for the future. A lot of writers use character sheets to answer questions about physical attributes, likes and dislikes. I find that I want to hear about my characters from them in their own voice. Although listening to the character is the best way to learn about the players, I do get a little nervous about my villains. I know I have to find out what motivates them, but they inevitably enjoy giving me a long monologue with the lurid details of their nasty lives. I hate that.
Check out some of your favorite books. Look at the amount and type of dialogue. See how much it adds to the story line. How much do you use in your work? Some people use dialogue as a means to break up a long bout of prose, but it does so much more. Dialogue serves as a place to reveal information, let your characters strut their stuff, amp up emotions, and describe a character through actions rather than adjectives.
Oh yes, and according to Mr. Burke, it can also be a cure for writer’s block.
And remember, keep writing!