What our authors say…
Your first words need to be an introduction to something happening— details can wait; you need to breathe life into your story first, then give it form. Don’t dwell too much on the world, don’t introduce too many characters, don’t drop too many concepts. -William Boyd
For more tips, grab the Inspired by Limyaael booklet!
I seem to keep writing them, no matter what I do, so I thought I’d summarize how I try to keep them interesting (though of course it doesn’t always work).
1) Avoid the “As you know, Bob…” speeches.
This is the stereotypical but convenient name for a scene in which the author has two characters discuss something they’re both already familiar with, for the sole purpose of explaining it to the reader. It’s probably the worst example of infodumping in dialogue, and, I must confess, one I really don’t understand. Why not just introduce a character who isn’t familiar with the world, or political system, or magical artifact, and explain things to that character? Then the audience is much less likely to become impatient with the questions, and the author can encourage reader identification with the character (who’s often a clueless teenage hero from a backwater village, or a person from modern Earth in crossover fantasy). Even there, it should be used with moderation, but it’s much easier to excuse than “As you know, Bob…” moments.
If you feel unable to introduce a character who’s not already familiar with everything about your world, then for the love of Buddha, don’t concentrate everything you need to explain in a single dialogue scene. It bores the fuck out of your readers, and usually, no excuse is good enough to make these characters discuss it for pages and pages. (No, not even the “I had heard this before, but I knew I was going to hear it again” excuse. Why wouldn’t a bored first-person narrator just summarize the conversation as something like “More boring blather flowed past me, but I paid it no attention?”) Slip in the information along the way, when the character notices something odd. Since most fantasies start near the point where things violently change anyway, the narrator can compare usual events to the new ones, and elaborate the structure of the world that way.
2) Compare the conversation scene you’re writing to ones you’ve already written, and trim things that have already been said too many times.
There are pairs of characters I roll my eyes at and groan in certain books, because no matter how much they talk, they never say anything new. This usually happens with romantic couples in fantasy. As I’ve noted, a lot of fantasy authors expect the reader to accept some bickering, a few stolen glances and kisses, and a declaration of love as the basis for a true and lasting bond. But included are all those tedious conversations where the two people say and think the exact same things they said and thought in the first four conversations the author wrote.
In other words, make sure that your conversations are about communication, as well as the chance to air old grudges and for one person or the other to think about how hot the other is. Yes, people in real life do have circular conversations for years before they say anything important. But people in real life aren’t fictional characters with an audience waiting impatiently to find out what happens to them. And remember that lack of communication or repetition of the same old things in real life can destroy relationships, something that the author usually won’t allow to happen in a fantasy novel. At some point, the barriers need to break, and they need to do it by means other than a blurted revelation.
Have I mentioned how much I hate that?
3) Allow your characters the conscious decision to say something important, as well as the chance to blurt it out.
Sometimes it seems as if no fantasy character ever chooses to just look someone else in the eye and say, “I’m sorry,” or “I’m in love with you,” or even “Listen, I’m your long-lost sister.” The author is always making them blurt it without meaning to. *gag gag choke cough*
This is a bad idea for three reasons:
a) It encourages your audience to think of the character as an author’s tool, especially when the interruption is obviously out of character (like the highly self-possessed priest just saying how incredibly beautiful the warrior maiden is out of the blue).
b) It gives your character less of a conscious choice in the story, and while it might make the reader pity your character, it’s not the kind of compassion mingled with admiration that comes from seeing a strong person in a story; it’s pity mingled with amusement.
c) The circumstances are often completely, horribly contrived, even when the blurting is in character. Getting drunk is a favorite example. The character forced to confess the truth in front of the villain is another. Other times it seems as though the partner in the conversation is just incredibly sexy and the other person can’t help himself. *snort* At that point, I think the author needs to get over the character.
Allow your characters the right to make the decision on their own sometime. At the least, it will spare you having to come up with a situation in which your self-possessed character acts like a total pushover.
4) Few characters actually banter. Their authors only think they do.
Bantering usually involves some element of mutual amusement, some cleverness, and a give-and-take exchange. I don’t count it as banter when one character so overwhelms or overawes the other that the second isn’t an equal conversational partner. Nor do I count it when Character A snipes at Character B with no sign of amusement, or when the conversation is genuinely angry, or when it’s bickering instead.
Bickering is supposedly easy to mistake for banter. I don’t think it is, if only because I get bored easily with bickering scenes, and well-written banter doesn’t make me feel that way. A bantering couple (romantic or not, really), is great fun. A bickering couple makes me want to swallow my tongue.
Consider the relationship between your characters. Do they see each other as partners in conversation, or as people to score points off of? Do they feel satisfied when the conversation is done, or hostile? If one of them comes up with something clever, does the other grin and try to think of something equally clever, or mutter and scowl and snap promises along the lines of, “Just you wait?”
It it’s the second answer all the time, your characters are bickering, not bantering. And this is rather boring to read, especially if one character wins all the time. And I can tell the author is trying to set it up as a romantic relationship most of the time, a relationship that won’t work because the characters don’t have enough true liking and a deep enough bond to sustain their love (no, ogling each other when they bathe is not true liking, in my book).
Try bantering instead of bickering, sometime. It’s much more fun, both for your characters and your readers.
5) Consider the outside circumstances surrounding the conversation.
If they’re in the middle of a battle, the conversation better be pretty fucking restricted. Fighting is hard work, especially with armor and broadswords. The chances that they could hear each other are also restricted if they’re in the middle of a melee, with screams, shouts, clangs, and maybe horses and magic everywhere. Having a long, detailed conversation in sentences with multiple clauses is right out.
(Unfortunately, some authors think the way to spice up conversation scenes is “have them take place in an exciting action scene.” They don’t consider that the exciting action should probably be the point of that scene, rather than the conversation).
If one of the characters is angry or tired, that will probably affect his or her reactions as well. This could actually be a realistic way to make the character blurt something out, especially something he’s thought for a long time but never had the courage to say. But taking someone who’s just seen her sister die and expecting her to banter with her hero is stupid. Emotions should work with plot necessity to determine how a conversation will go; one shouldn’t entirely control the other.
Sometimes, the author’s preference for a suitably dramatic location overrules practical considerations. It might not be quite as bad as a battle, but I’ve still read some fantasy epiphanies in perfectly ridiculous places. On a tall tower in the middle of a windy night is not the best place to tell the heroine that she’s the heiress of the Kingdom. Yeah, she might have been forced there to battle the villain, but wouldn’t the wizard wait until they’re in a place that’s a little more comfortable to deposit that burden on her shoulders? If nothing else, she might not hear him properly, or there might be an agent of the villain hiding on the stairs to overhear the important information. You may want the dark skies and the stars overhead, but give the wizard an observatory for that. The heroine shouldn’t be able to give a dramatic speech accepting the responsibility if she’s drained, tired, cold, and covered with blood.
6) Know when to summarize.
There are some conversations we just don’t need to hear in detail. Really. Foremost among these is the “it was exciting the first time we heard it” story. If we already know every single detail of the heroine’s quest for the crown, we don’t need to hang around in the room while she repeats it for her startled audience at the end. We’ve lived through it in the book, after all. It’s best to say, “She then told them about learning the crown was missing, and wondering what a poor scullery maid could do about it…” while interjecting character-appropriate reactions. So, if one of your characters never knew that the heroine had gone off by herself to fetch the Jewel of Aklimbos when he’d specifically told her not to, he could get angry at that part. That doesn’t mean that we need to hear the heroine reciting all the particulars of her decision in a page-long paragraph, when we’ve already read about her agonizing over it for ten pages.
There are also some conversations that it’s necessary to know the characters have had, but which aren’t interesting enough in themselves to warrant being displayed in dialogue. These can be handled with a simple, “Helliena rolled her eyes. They’d been arguing back and forth about his lack of faith in her all summer.” That lets the reader know what’s going on, so that the relationship between the characters doesn’t come as a complete shock, without having to listen to tedious arguments. It’s also a great way to avoid segueing into “As you know, Bob…” scenes, which are far likelier to happen when the author thinks the audience needs to hear every single conversation.
I would look forward to reading conversation scenes a lot more if I knew the characters were actually going to say something essential, fresh, and with banter.