Thoughts on dialogue

Conversations in stories can be remarkably difficult to write convincingly.  One of the major problems is that a few paragraphs of dialogue can show the character of the speaker as well as pages of description can.  This is a bonus, but at the same time one of the worst stumbling blocks an author can meet.

The problem is that every writer puts something of himself into almost every character.  Creating a character that is utterly foreign is an extremely difficult task.  When describing the character, or writing about their actions, this is less difficult, because we can easily imagine reactions and decisions that are alien or even repugnant.  We can make a character DO something, with ease.

However, making that same character talk (or think) is a very different matter.  When we write dialogue, we automatically attempt to insert our own reactions to questions or statements aimed at the character.  If we write a reply for the bad guy, it’s tough to write an evil response.  But that part isn’t the real problem.  It can be overcome with a little work.

The hard part is to make the dialogue FIT the character.  Me, I’m a verbose, talkative, rambling person.  Writing a terse, unfriendly person into a conversation is not something I’m good at.  My characters tend to talk.  A lot.  That means I have a great deal of trouble writing one of my favorite main characters.  Hunter (or the Hunter as some readers call him) is one of those terse people.  The stories are told by him, so the narrative is quite talkative.  However, he doesn’t waste much time when he talks to other characters.

Most of Hunter’s stories are shorts, without other characters.  He’s a Hunter, therefore most of his adventures are jobs, done alone.  This means there isn’t any in-story dialogue.  Recently, I tried writing a “Hunter” story, one that included one of his clients.   The attempt failed, left to rot in my “incomplete” folder, because it “didn’t sound right”.  After a while, I realized why.  In that story, Hunter talked to his client.  And he was far-and-away too talkative.  He talked like me.

After a few weeks, I decided to have another try at a “Hunter” story where he talked to other people.  This time, I kept Hunter’s attitude in mind.  I tried to “be” Hunter, think like he thought and talk the same.  It worked.  Hunter is terse, unfriendly guy, one who doesn’t like talking for the fun of it.  When he has something constructive to say, he might get long-winded, but otherwise, you’ll be lucky to get more than a grunt out of him.

I’ll say it again; writing believable dialogue is hard.  Talking shows a lot more of your character than you realize.  Keeping the conversation consistent with the character you’ve built can be a real challenge.  And few things can make a story fall flatter than a “hokey” conversation.

4 thoughts on “Thoughts on dialogue

  1. This is a GREAT post. I sometimes have difficulty with dialogue too. See, I’m not a real talker in person (unless it’s something I’m interested in xD). What I struggle with is giving characters SOMETHING to talk about when they are in passing or in social situations. It’s difficult, because for me, I don’t talk. I nod at someone. I smile. But my characters have to talk, and I sit there for hours thinking of what they can say.

    I’ve found a few ways to help this. My best friend is a huge talking extrovert. I tell her about my characters. I tell her where I want a conversation to end up… and then we talk back and forth through chat. I use our dialogue in my story. That way it feels natural and it actually has purpose.

    Another thing I do, is I write the conversation from many POV’s. I write the scene in the chatty person’s perspective. Then I take the same scene, and write it from the other person’s perspective. That way, I know exactly what each character is thinking and how they can respond. This makes my side characters stand out more, and the dialogue feel richer.

    In short, I have trouble with dialogue too 🙂 This post has been very relatable.

    Sorry for ranting!

    ~S.J.

  2. Well said! I wrote one my characters with Kimball Cho (Tim Kang) from The Mentalist in mind. Hie has a very characteristic, laconic way of speaking that I wanted to imitate. Surprisingly enough, it worked, and this is now one of my most recognizable characters; whenever I read his lines, I immediately know it’s him.

    • Glad you enjoyed reading it! “Hunter” has evolved somewhat, but his dialogue is still all his own. 🙂

      I can see working with an already written character in mind. It would certainly make it easier to maintain consistency, I should think.

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