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More Than Mere Dialogue

So you’re writing a novel and you want your dialogue to be more than mere dialogue. You want actions. You want thoughts. You want the scene to feel natural. How do you do that?

Andrew posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have been writing for a few months, and I am still in the beginning stages of my hobby. I try to integrate actions, gestures, and thoughts with my dialogue, but I am having a great deal of difficulty. I normally have to look at Books I read and copy ideas from there. Is there an easy way to find list of different ideas or better yet examples of this kind of information? If I actually knew the technical term for what I was asking for it would be a big help too. Thanks!

Randy sez: Good question, Andrew. It’s not a bad idea to read books and see how they’ve done it. That’s a great way to learn things, because it’s fun to read fiction. What I’ll do here is to summarize all the core ideas for showing your story. Take these ideas and see how your favorite authors put them into practice.

Let’s remember what our goal is in writing fiction: We want to create a movie in our reader’s head. We want to “show” the reader our story, not merely “tell” the story.

That wasn’t the goal of writers 150 years ago. But we’re competing with movies, so that’s our goal.

First, you asked for the right terminology. Here are the terms I use, which are fairly standard. You have five tools for “showing” your reader your story:

  • Action
  • Dialogue
  • Interior Monologue
  • Interior Emotion
  • Sensory Description

Yes, there are other tools you can use, such as Narrative Summary or Exposition. There’s a place for these in every novel, but these are called “telling” your story, rather than “showing” your story, and generally it’s a good idea to use “showing” as much as possible—for all the exciting stuff. You can use “telling” for the boring things that have to be told, but need to be told efficiently.

I could write fifty pages on exactly how you use Action, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, Interior Emotion, and Sensory Description in a novel. In fact, I have written  just about that many pages already in my book Writing Fiction for Dummies. It would be a stretch to put that much detail in this blog post. But here are a few guidelines that will help you get rolling:

  • Each scene can have as many characters as you want, but your scene will typically happen in one place and cover just a short period of time.
  • In every scene, there is one character that’s special—you are going to take the reader inside that character’s skin. This character is called the Point of View character, often abbreviated POV character. Your goal is to show only what the POV character can see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel, or think. You are trying to create the illusion that your reader is your POV character.
  • You can switch POV characters when you switch to a new scene, or you can keep the same POV character if you like. It’s up to you. But don’t change POV characters inside the same scene.
  • Each paragraph should focus either on one character or on the environment.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on the POV character, then you can show that character’s Actions, Dialogue, Interior Monologue, and Interior Emotion. You can use as many or as few of these tools as you like in the paragraph.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on some other character, then you can show that character’s Actions and Dialogue and possibly some Sensory Description. But you should only show things that your POV character can see or hear or smell or taste or touch.
  • If a paragraph is focusing on the environment, then you can show Action and Sensory Description of the environment. Again, only show the things your POV character can see or hear or smell or taste or touch.
  • If you need a paragraph or two of Narrative Summary or Exposition, put them in, but make them as interesting as you can, because they’re interrupting the movie in your reader’s head.

These are not “Rules.” There aren’t any Rules in fiction. These are rules of thumb that guide you. You can violate any of them that you want, as long as you think it makes the story better. Usually, violating these rules of thumb makes the story worse. Part of the art of fiction is learning when to use the rules of thumb and when to break them.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer the ones I can, but no guarantees. There are only so many hours in the day.

Avoiding Sameness In Your Dialogue

So you’re writing a novel and it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, except that all your characters talk alike. What can you do to avoid that pesky sameness in your dialogue?

Tim posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I have a issue with having my characters sound a like. I have great details on each of their personalities but other one secondary character they all seem the Sam. One is the dialogue, how do I make the sound different?

Randy sez: That’s a great question, Tim. It’s a question every novelist faces.

Let’s try to understand first WHY all your characters are sounding alike in their dialogue.

The reason is because all your characters inherit quite a bit of their personality from you. That is necessarily true. Your characters aren’t real. They spring out of your imagination. They exist because you thought them into existence.

Which means they are limited by you and your experiences. If you’re an American and have never met any Germans, it would be really hard for you to write a German character. If you’re a southerner and have never met any yankees, then you’ll have a hard time writing a yankee character.

So the solution to getting rid of the sameness in your dialogue come in two steps:

  1. Meet more people.
  2. Steal their voices.

Let’s look at each of those in a little more detail.

Meet More People

When I say you need to meet more people, I mean people who are different from you. Wildly different. One of the best things I ever did for my writing career was to spend six years at UC Berkeley working on my Ph.D. in physics.

While I was at Berkeley, I met an amazing assortment of people. Panhandlers. Nobel laureates. Religious nuts. Political fanatics on the far right and far left.

My classmates came from all across the US and all around the world. I spent a lot of time with people from China, India, Korea, eastern Europe.

One of my close friends was an 80-year-old woman. Another had cerebral palsy. I had friends getting degrees in history, English literature, engineering. And I was a teaching assistant for a while and wound up trying to explain physics to a lot of normal people who don’t speak math.

I’m an introvert, but in my time at Berkeley, I got a serious education in the enormous differences in how people think. Which comes out in the way they talk.

Steal Their Voices

This has been immensely valuable to me in my fiction writing, because I had a huge number of people whose voices I could steal.

In one of my novels, I needed a cranky old midwife. No problem. One of my best friends at Berkeley was an 80-year-old woman who always said exactly what she was thinking. She didn’t have an internal censor. So when I was writing dialogue for my cranky midwife, I just asked myself how my friend would say it. I’d actually hear her voice in my head and then I’d just write down what she said.

In another book, I had a minor character who was an exuberant extroverted Israeli archaeologist. He spoke English with the same charming accent as my tour guide when I visited Israel. I remember listening to that guide and memorizing the sound of his voice because I knew I was going to put him in a book someday.

Whenever I have a character who’s very different from me, I ask myself what real person I’ve known who was like that character. Then I try to imagine having a conversation with that real person, and listen to their voice. What pet words do they overuse? What slang do they use? How do they think about the world?

Don’t Copy Too Exactly

One thing you want to avoid is trying to reproduce a person’s accent too exactly. If you’ve ever read GONE WITH THE WIND, you probably struggled to understand the way-too-literal reproduction of the speech patterns of slaves from the Civil War era. Every word is misspelled the way it sounds, making it almost unreadable for modern readers. In cases like this, spell the words correctly but misuse the grammar the way the speaker actually says it. That strikes a balance that your reader can understand.

Different people tend to use different  thought patterns. Try to capture those as exactly as you can. If you have a character who isn’t very original, he might use a lot of cliches when he talks.

One thing to be wary of is capturing the exact slang-of-the-moment. That might work for a year or two, but slang tends to go out of style pretty quickly and then it sounds dated. So if you’re going to use slang, make it up. Then it can never go out of style.

Tim, I hope that answers your question. You get better at writing dialogue by writing a lot of dialogue. You get better at writing in different voices by writing in different voices.

Naked Dialogue

Here’s an exercise to force you to build your dialogue muscles: Write an entire scene in dialogue without using any tags to identify the characters. This means you can’t use “Joe said” or “Mary said” anywhere in the scene. And you can’t even use action tags, such as “Voldemort slammed his fist on the table.”

You have to write the whole scene in what I call “naked dialogue”–just the dialogue, without action or description or interior monologue or interior emotion or narrative summary or exposition.

It’s hard to do, but it forces you to learn the tricks that help distinguish between your characters’ voices.

You will rarely use naked dialogue in an actual scene of a book, but writing it as an exercise will build your skills in dialogue fast.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.


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