First, I want to quickly draw your attention to the tab up top that says 2011 Contest Winners. Those are bios, pictures, and web site links for the wonderful writers who have placed this year in the writing prompt contests. If your name is on there and you'd like me to add the extra stuff, shoot me an email.
A writer emailed me to ask, "How do you make conversations flow naturally? I didn't used to have a problem with this, but lately I feel like the conversations that my characters are having in my story are too jumpy and don't lead logically from one subject to the next."
This is a great question, though one I'm a little nervous about answering. Because I find dialogue is a "feel" kind of thing. So I can't give you any kind of formula for great dialogue, but I can toss out a few things that might help:
Don't make conversations all about your main character
When I look back at my early manuscripts, it's clear that in my head, my MC was the only one who had a life going on. Conversations fixated on my MC, her problems, her needs, and so forth. Not cool.
Here's a challenge for you - give everyone a problem. That keeps you from having to write stuff like, "What nice weather we're having." "Yes, we sure are." Or "Hi, how are you?" "Fine, how are you?" "Good. How's Trudy doing?" "She's doing great. Thanks for asking."
If everyone has a problem, dialogue instantly becomes more interesting. "What nice weather we're having." "All this sun is killing my garden." Or "Hi, how are you?" "I just hit a bunny with my car. How do you think I am?" Or "How's Trudy doing?" "Ugh. Don't get me started."
Don't try to make it read like real life.
Of course it needs to have a real life feel to it ... but we have lots of boring conversations in real life. Especially when we're forced into rooms with our extended family. Don't make your reader sit through Aunt Trudy's 20 minute monologue on her dog's agility training. The only person who's interested in that is Aunt Trudy.
They say fiction is life with all the boring parts taken out. This is true of your dialogue too. Don't make us sit through all the pleasantries ... unless it's one of those awkward moments when two people are seeing each other for the first time after a breakup or something.
Don't let your boys talk like girls. And vice versa.
In one of my early manuscripts, one of my guys kept using the word "fabulous." Everything was fabulous - weather, clothes, classes. No straight guy says fabulous that often. I don't think my husband has ever used that word. Make a list of words this particular character might say instead when they're describing something. Think about where their family is from, how educated they are, how educated their parents are, and so forth.
Think about the motivations of each character and what's going on inside.
The writer who emailed me this question suggested she might not know her characters well enough. This is possible. For me, when my dialogue is flat, it's because I haven't considered the thoughts and feelings of the other characters.
When I was writing Out with the In Crowd, I hit a major wall during an important conversation. Skylar's mom was informing Skylar and her sister that she was moving very far away and they could either choose to stay or come with her. Every word I typed was droopy and tired. I knew I wasn't doing the scene justice. Why isn't this working? I thought. Why can't I come up with any kind of twist or surprise?
Well, the problem was I was only viewing the scene through Skylar's eyes. And we'd spent the first half of the book watching her wrestle through feelings for her mom. So, no, she didn't bring any surprises to the table We'd spent, like, 30,000 words on her.
But when I took the time to digest what had happened to her sister during the course of the story, and what she might be feeling in all this, the conversation suddenly pounced to life. Skylar didn't have any surprises for me, but Abbie sure did.
Don't let everyone say what they feel
There's a time and place for tell-all scenes, but for the most part, your character's shouldn't be saying everything on their mind.
For example. In this scene, Marin is at the restaurant where her new boyfriend, Vince, works. She's convinced she just saw him flirting with a table of girls:
In the short hallway containing the bathroom doors, someone catches my wrist. I’m not surprised when I turn to find Vince giving me a puzzled look. “Hey, where you going?”I point at the bathroom. “Disneyland.”“Right.” He cocks his head. “What’s the deal? Katelyn and Ella bugging you?”“No.” I try to yank free, but he holds on tighter.He looks to his hand, capturing me, and then looks back up. “Are you mad at me?”“No. I just have to go to the bathroom.”
And then the choice is yours. Does your character believe the lie, or no? Vince is the type to push, so he does:
“That’s not the face of someone who has to go to the bathroom. That’s the same expression you had when you ate here with your dad and came careening back here.”“You saw that?”“Are you kidding? You nearly knocked me over.”“I didn’t know that was you.” His grip on my wrist softens, but I don’t pull away. “You were flirting with those girls.”“What girls?”“Those girls sitting by my table. The busty college girls.”Vince bites his lower lip but can’t hide his smile. “Busty?”“We should just end this.” I can’t believe those words just popped out of my mouth, but there they are.
Does Marin really feel like ending their relationship? No. If Marin were being 100% honest she would say, "I know I'm overreacting, and I'm sorry, but I have big trust issues. My dad walked out on us, my last relationship was a miserable failure, and you're so good looking it makes me insecure."
All good things for Marin to eventually realize ... but not good things for her to voice. Especially not yet. Make sure your characters aren't being too honest.
So those are the tips popping into my mind right now. Do you have any to share?