Continuing the language theme…

Some of this advice is going to be useless without an ear for dialogue. I think most people can develop this if they don’t already have it. Listen to people speaking around you—not only the sense of what they’re saying, but the rhythm of the words, the vocabulary they use, the hesitations they work in. Then balance it with a sense of what the story requires.

1) Don’t use formality except for formal characters or scenes.

This is a problem when the writer can’t decide where narration (through the narrator’s voice) should end and informational dialogue (through the mouth of a character) should begin. Thus, a character can come off sounding almost exactly like the narrator, down to word choices and spouting whole sentences like “If you listened in the way that befits a young lady, you would know that the Lions of the Kingdom crossed the border in the days of the ancestors of no one now living and wove their amethyst dreams first in the Hall of Splendors.” This is especially inappropriate when the character is not meant to be formal, stuffy, or lecturing. Lack of contractions, high-flown vocabulary, and extremely long sentences, especially ones without convenient pauses for breath, are some of the things that will make your characters sound unfortunately formal.

This is a place where characterization has to come first. Can you safely infodump through the mouth of the character, because he or she actually talks like that? Will he or she still have that personality when the author’s need to infodump fades? Or will (as happens far too often) the character undergo a complete personality change to become a spunky, happy, informal friend? If so, then you are relying too much on the dialogue providing information and not enough on it sounding like actual speech. Find some other way to infodump. If you’re using the omniscient narrator’s voice anyway, lack of contractions and words like “argent” belong there. If you have a stuffy character, be sure to keep him stuffy when the moment is past.

The same thing applies to formal scenes. It’s all right for a character on his best behavior to sound puffed-up when he’s being presented to the King. Outside the room, he should revert to his normal informality. Don’t make your characters oscillate back and forth between them without reason.

2) Cut out the hesitations.

This is a place where you need to balance realism with story needs. In practice, we all know people who constantly use a catch phrase every few words, such as “you know” or “like,” or who hesitate and say “um” quite often. In a story, this is excruciatingly boring to read, and no amount of commitment to realism can justify it. Dialogue should answer at least one of four purposes: characterization, information, moving the story forward, or contextualizing a scene. Normal speech, of course, varies much more widely, but for an author to attempt to represent absolutely normal speech will kill the story. Trim what’s excess away.

This applies even to cute catch phrases, creative profanity, or a character with a stutter, areas where the author will be tempted to include every little permutation in the speech as characterization. Represent it a few times, and after that, note it only as a description. Stutters are the worst, and having to read that character’s every line of dialogue as “S-s-stop the D-dark L-lord” will escalate the annoyance factor past what most readers can tolerate. You can put “He stuttered out” or “She swore again” without making it seem as if you are obsessed with cute little features at the expense of the story.

3) Decide how many circular or rehashing conversations you will allow to take place.

In real life, of course, they happen all the time; two people may go on emotionally avoiding each other for years, and giving each other the same empty formalities every time they meet. In fantasy, where a faster pace than normal is usually required and these characters are probably only two among very many, this can’t be allowed to take over the story.

Walk a fine line between showing that these characters have issues and never moving the story forward. If you don’t do it well enough, the reader may never know there’s supposed to be a problem at all. On the other hand, if their every conversation turns into another fruitless session of repeating things they already know and blaming each other, then the story stalls, the characters glare at each other, and your reader (or this one, at least) closes the book.

The great frustration with me comes in romance scenes. When the hero and heroine have the exact same thoughts and say slight variations of the same words over and over again, then not only will the happy ending seem forced, but the journey to get there will be stale, too, not so much running along a path as jogging in place.

4) Don’t force characterization through dialogue.

This is a place where commitment to realism may need to be greater than your commitment to the story. Many authors know that dialogue is a great place to reveal character. The problem comes in how they use it.

If your character tells the whole sad, tragic story of her past for ten pages to someone she’s just barely met, then the story has taken over from realism. First of all, it’s unlikely that a stranger would get to hear the whole version. There would be pauses, hesitations, internal editing. Your heroine might really want to share the pain of her abusive past, but is she going to let everything out all at once to someone she has no history with? Hardly.

Second, the author will be neglecting other cues that can help move the story along, and break up the sheer “dialogue-ness” of the past-revealing passage. Let’s face it, long, long conversations are boring to read, particularly when there’s no build-up to it and the audience hasn’t had the chance to fervently wonder about what the character is hiding. Have the character turn away, tilt her head so that her hair can fall over her face, break off, gesture with her hands from heart or chest outward, blink, swallow, glare. All of these remind the reader that there is a real person to whom this history belongs, not just an endless monologue of pain.

Finally, how can someone speak perfectly and faultlessly for however many minutes reading such a passage aloud would take? Her voice would get hoarse, and double that if she’s already hoarse from crying or screaming. Have her ask for a drink of water at the least, or just break it off.

You can always condense the history. There’s no need for a reader to know absolutely everything, even if you have made the heroine’s past a mystery for a while and the audience is just dying to know what it is. Include only information that is relevant to the story. Don’t describe the time she fell down the stairs and banged her knee when she was ten, if it has no place.

5) Include some accident, but don’t rely solely on it.

Having a character blurt something out and get into trouble as a result is an interesting mix of characterization and moving the story forward at the least, and can sometimes provide information or contextualization as well. The problem comes in overusing it—in having one character who always reveals the important secret at the wrong moment, or in having the answer to every single mystery delivered this way.

People do interrupt each other, say things they don’t mean, yell angrily for no important reason, backstab others with words for petty reasons, and so on. But characters have to serve the purposes of the story, and not just convenience. If a character has kept his temper and his secret for thousands of miles of wilderness trek accompanied by bad weather, worse food, and a whining princess-heir, will he really yell out the devastating information just because he stubs his toe? It might be very convenient for the author, but it destroys characterization and a good bit of the suspense so far built up. Something hidden usually needs a dramatic revelation, such as the hero’s wife betraying him because of problems in their marriage. A petty revelation puts that jewel of information in a trashy setting.

6) Make conversation interesting to read.

Many purely informational conversations are not. Nor are too many of those hesitating, circular things I mentioned in point 3. Nor is a conversation where one character is witty and bantering and the others just gape at her in awe (even when the remarks aren’t particularly clever).

Make the characters equal conversational partners. What I don’t see very often is dialogue where both partners are of equal intelligence and able to trade barbs, jokes, or clever sayings with impunity. Many authors are up to the challenge of writing one such character, so I don’t think it’s a lack of wit. It’s more of an identification with that character and the feeling that no one should be able to match him or her. Try giving him or her one match, though. It won’t be the end of the world.

Other ways to make the conversation equal:

  • One character tries to annoy the other; the other keeps his temper and changes the subject.
  • One character is witty, clever, or dramatic, but the other holds power over her (such as being her captor).
  • Both characters are equally angry, despondent, or [insert emotional adjective].
  • One character keeps asking questions and being skeptical; the other has to respond.
  • The characters are being open with each other after a long time of keeping silent.

All kinds of ways to do it, and most of them are far more interesting than the witty banterer or wise lecturer dispensing her knowledge to the masses.

It’s amazing how much dialogue varies. Unless the author is a tin-ear writer or writing for the first time, I can usually see all kinds of levels in a story: believable, easy dialogue; words I can accept under the circumstances; and dialogue that would never make sense in a thousand years.