Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What Are Your Characters Talking About?

Jill Williamson is a chocolate loving, daydreaming, creator of kingdoms. She writes weird books for teens in lots of weird genres like, fantasy (Blood of Kings trilogy), science fiction (Replication), and dystopian (The Safe Lands trilogy). Find Jill on FacebookTwitterPinterest, or on her author website.

Last week Arlette asked a question about how to keep your characters' dialogue vivid and alive. Steph wrote some posts on dialogue a while back, and I think they're really good. So, you might want to check those out:

Go Teen Writers: How to Write Good Dialogue Part One

Go Teen Writers: How to Write Good Dialogue Part Two

But what if you're staring at your blank Word document, the cursor is blinking at you, and you don't know what your characters are talking about. What do they have to say to each other?

Keep in mind, there shouldn't be any dialogue in your book that's superfluous. Dialogue is part of a scene, and every scene in your book should have a purpose. Every scene should do one or more of the following:

1. Advance the plot
2. Deepen characters
3. Fill in backstory

That said, if your goal is to deepen the characters, and there is no major plot point happening besides them getting to know each other, how do you keep the dialogue interesting? You don't want to write the way people actually talk, because people are boring. The guys in my youth group could talk about a video game for an hour. I don't want to read about that.

But when conversation is exciting, funny, or adversarial, it can keep the reader turning the pages just as quickly as if they're in the midst of an action-packed scene.

“Great, Jill,” you say. “But how do I do it?”



“Dialogue is a war.” So says Randy Ingermanson in his book Writing Fiction for Dummies. And that's a great place for us to start. Dialogue should have tension. And not all tension means a fight. Tension can come from fear, anger, hatred, desire, excitement, sorrow, competition. I could go on an on.

So here is what I suggest. Start by choosing an overall emotion you're hoping to convey during the scene. Also, figure out where your characters are, emotion-wise, before the dialogue starts, and if you're hoping to change that or not. Also, it always helps to know each of their motivations for the scene and for life in general.


I'm going to use an example of dialogue from my book The New Recruit. All I wanted to do here was characterize a few people. The only thing this conversations adds to the overall plot is that both Gabe and Spencer like Isabel.

Here is what I knew in advance:

Overall emotional goal for the scene- humor

Character emotions/goals- 
Spencer- He's feeling awkward because his new church friends invaded the lunch table where he sits with his basketball friends.
Kip- He's annoyed that these “losers” came and sat at the cool people table.
Gabe- He's trying to make friends with Spencer.
Isabel- She's just looking to see where her friends are sitting at lunch.

And here is the scene-


     “Dude, this is nuts. I’m out of here.” Kip stood up. “I’ll be outside.”
     Gabe opened a bag of chips and offered Kip one. “You should probably stay in the building. It’s pretty hot out today.”
     Kip stared at Gabe as if the guy had two heads.
     “Que pasa? Got room for me, Gabriel?” Isabel stood behind me, holding a pink fabric lunch sack. Her thick black lashes seemed to blink in slow motion.
     Gabe pushed his stuff over and squished closer to me, making a spot for Isabel, but she sat on my other side. Ha! Garmond-1. Stopplecamp-0. And I just have to point out: When Isabel said Gabriel’s name, it sounded like Gabrielle, which is a girl’s name. I’m just saying . . .
     “Yeah . . .” Kip said, his eyes roaming over Isabel like a searchlight. “It does look kind of hot outside.” He sat back on the bench. “Kind of hot in here too.”
I snorted a laugh. Kip took great pride in the cheesy pickup lines he dealt to girls. The sad thing was, they worked half the time. I secretly hoped Isabel was smarter than the girls Kip usually hit on.
     “Es-pensor, what church do you go to?” Isabel asked.
     “Calvary Baptist,” I said, thankful for the first time that Grandma made me go so I could provide the goddess with a pleasing answer.
     “Me, Gabe, Arianna, and Neek, we all go to Cornerstone Christian Center. You should come to our youth group sometime. It’s on Wednesday nights.”
     Yeah, right. Like I’d ever set foot in that place again. Nick didn’t like me, and neither did his dad, Pastor Muren. Yet this was Isabel inviting me somewhere.
     “I’m sorry, were you talking to me?” Kip asked Isabel.
     She looked across the table. “Uh, no. I was asking—”
     “Would you like to?” Kip said.
     She frowned. Apparently she wasn’t quick enough to catch his meaning.
     Kip flashed her a cheesy grin. “I’m just asking because my friend Spencer here wants to know if you think I’m cute.”
     I rolled my eyes.
     Isabel pursed her lips and tipped her head to the side. “Well, what is your name, Es-pensor’s friend?”
     “You can call me Kip if I can call you tonight.”
     This time Isabel chuckled. “Oh, you’re a funny one.”
     Kip tapped his fingers on the table in front of my tray.
     “Dude, did the sun come up or did she just smile at me?”
     I laughed too. I couldn’t help it. When Kip got going, only a slap to the face could stop him. And I had to give him credit for using his clean lines on Isabel. I guess he could tell she was too nice to be raunchy around.
     Or maybe he just didn’t want her to slap him.

So what does this show the reader? That Gabe is nice. That Isabel speaks a little bit of Spanglish. That Kip is kind of a jerk and likes to make things all about him. That Spencer thinks Kip is funny. That all three guys like Isabel. That Isabel is polite but isn't showing any interest in Kip. That Spencer is competitive. That Spencer might consider going to church (something he doesn't like) to spend time with Isabel (someone he does like).

Dialogue is a war. They all want to talk about different things. Kip won. He dominated the conversation.

Let's take two characters. We'll call them Eli and Paige. And we want them to have a conversation.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Nothing," Paige said.

Right now, what they're saying is boring. We need to turn this dialogue into a war of some kind.

So here are some tips to help you figure out how to make your dialogue a war:


Make it confrontational. Each character's traits can clash with another. In my example, Kip's traits took over the conversation. The words spoken (or thought internally by your POV character) should be traits that are natural to each speaker. Things like: politeness, sarcasm, humor, etc. (click here to see the character traits list). You can also add character emotions like anger or flirtation. And should those emotions clash, all the more interesting for your reader.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"What do you think is up, you jerk?" Paige said.
"What did I do?"
"Are you kidding me? You really don't have a clue?"

Make it suspenseful. Have one of the characters say or do something that piques the reader's interest or curiosity. Maybe their answer is vague or suspicious and makes the POV character think the other character is hiding something or lying for some reason.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"You don't want to know," Paige said.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"As if you don't know," Paige said.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Mr. Lawler gave a pop quiz that I totally failed," Paige said.
"Wait. You're not in Mr. Lawler's class."

Make it confusing (in a good way). Have one of your characters say something odd in reply. Maybe she's in a goofy mood, maybe she's preoccupied by something, or maybe she wasn't listening to the POV character or misheard him.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Sky. Moon. Stars," Paige said, smiling.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Did you know Mike and Emma are dating?" Paige asked.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"Do I want some what?" Paige asked.

Make it make decisions. People often decide things when they talk. What they think about people or what they'd like to do next. Since you should have a goal for the scene, let your dialogue lead your characters to the place you need them to go.

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"I'm starving," Paige said.
"I've got a Snickers. You want it?"

"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"I'm starving," Paige said.
"I could eat. Let's go to DairyQueen."

Make it describe. Use description tags or action tags to give clues to your POV character. You don't have to use such tags with every bit of dialogue, but practice to find places where it fits and feels natural.

Paige walked into the room and slumped into the seat beside Eli's. Her eyes were red and puffy.
"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
Paige huffed. "As if you don't know."

Paige clomped into the room and slumped into the seat beside Eli's.
"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
Paige stuck out her bottom lip. "I'm starving."

Make it internal. You should already be adding your point of view character's internal narrative here and there. Not with every bit of dialogue, but practice this! This is your character's voice. Learn to perfect it.

Paige walked into the room and slumped into the seat beside Eli's. Her eyes were red and puffy.
Uh oh. "Hey, what's up?" Eli asked, wincing inside.
Paige glared at him. "What do you think is up, you jerk?"
A chill ran up Eli's arms. She'd seen. She knew. Nuts.

Paige clomped into the room and slumped into the seat beside Eli's.
"Hey, what's up?" Eli asked.
"I'm starving," Paige said.
Eli instantly thought of the Snickers in his bag. The Snickers he'd bought for himself. The Snickers he'd been saving for after track practice. "I've got a Snickers. You want it?"

And---of course---don't forget to make use of the FREE Self-Editing Dialogue Checklist from the Go Teen Writers book. It's a great took to help you diagnose problems in your dialogue. Click here to download the checklist.

Can you think of any other ways to make dialogue into war?

33 comments:

  1. This was a great post, Jill! I really need to work on making my dialogue more like this. I feel like my character's conversations tend to be flat and meaningless a lot. :/

    -Abby

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    1. I'm glad it was helpful, Abigail. You can do it!

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  2. Wow. I'd never really thought about "war" like that. Thanks so much! This was so helpful, and I'll be referring to it both for editing and first draft-ing! :)

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  3. I LOVE "Writing Fiction for Dummies!" :D I'm about to start edits on my first draft an I know some of the conversations definitely need work, so great timing. Thanks Jill!

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  4. Hi everyone! This might seem utterly off topic, but I was wondering if anyone knew about good online critique groups for young writers? I'm 12 years old and I'm halfway through my second novel. I've been reading the Go Teen Writers Book and I'd like to find a good critique group online.

    Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Have you ever been on Figment? It's not exactly a critique group, but its a place where you can create your profile, upload books and make covers for them. Your story appears in the library, and then you can go around and ask people to read your story for a 'swap', in which you read something of theirs and they read something of yours. You can review, heart something, and comment. It's actually really cool, but I'd ask your parents before making an account.
      Hope this helps!

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    2. I have the same problem. If anyone finds something, please let me know! :)

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    3. Not like Figment. Do you know of an actual group that you can join online for young writers dedicated to giving and receiving critiques?

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    4. I don't know of anything like that, but Jill Williamson has a monthly/bimonthly contest that you can enter for a 20 double spaced page critique. You could look into that on her website...

      -Abby

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  5. Great post! My dialogue definitely tends to drift to either mundane or superfluous from time to time. Particularly when I'm writing when I'm tired. I have a question, though. What if your character like to use big words and the POV is 1st person present? I try to keep it fairly normal, but sometimes I'll type a word and I'll KNOW that the average teenage reader might not be too sure about it, yet I also know that that is the exact word that my character would select... It's difficult.

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    1. Whoever your character is in conversation with might also not know then what it means? They could stare at the person of POV or ask about it, that way you might have to explain now and then?

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    2. That kind of thing does happen with other characters, but it's not just dialogue. My character thinks in big words and with 1st person present, it's like having a front two seat into the main character's mind.

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    3. Let your character speak how they speak, Ashley. And let the other characters respond to that. Many would get used to it after a while. One person might always be sarcastic toward the vocab. But new people would likely always have some kind of reaction to it.

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  6. Thank you so much for this post! After reading it I went back to my second draft and found my very first bit of dialogue in which the MC reconnects with the boy who saw her kill a dude when they were kids, aka the love interest. It was terrible! I used some of your tips and now I can't believe what a difference its made. Now I just have to check the rest of the dialogue. joy.

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    1. I'm so glad, Kim! Yeah ... isn't editing a blast? LOL

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  7. Thank you for doing this post Jill! It's super helpful on top of the links you had already given about Stephanie's posts. I'm definately going to use this for practicing dialogue and for editing!

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    1. You're welcome, Arlette! I'm glad it was helpful. :-)

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  8. Wow, this is really helpful! Thank you! Great timing too, I've been having some issues with dialogue lately.

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  9. This was really helpful! Dialogue is my favorite thing to write, but sometimes I like it so much I get carried away and it kind of wanders. I'd never heard it referred to as a war! That's going on a sticky note :)

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    1. Give credit to Randy! I'm just a parrot. :-)

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  10. Great post. I've been thinking about how each character comes into a story/dialogue with their own agenda. As Stephanie said in one of her earlier dialogue posts, the conversation isn't necessarily going to be all about the main character. Most likely everyone has something that they will try to contribute. And of course sometimes they're conversational goals will clash with the goals of other characters in the scene.

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  11. Thanks for the post! My problem is I repeat stuff a lot in dialogue. As my characters' situations get worse, they start listing all the terrible things that are happening to them. It becomes, like, a war between my characters to see who's worse off. I go back in later and see these and its like "I can read. I've already read that this happened." So that's something to change. In my first book I put in conversations that were funny but completely pointless. From what I hear I'm pretty good with the actual, in-quotes dialogue and I think my characters disagree enough because of their clashing motives that it doesn't get boring.

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    1. It's great to analyze your dialogue to see what's working and what's not. Great idea, Kaitlin!

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  12. I like internal dialogue. Actually, I just like dialogue a lot.
    For me, everyone has high-stakes personalities, so that definitely makes it into more of a "war." My two main characters have similar personalities, but the girl teen is braver, while the guy MC (whose point of view it's from) is not. He's rather cowardly, because he doesn't want to get "found out" (although if something really riles him, he'll stand up for himself and anyone else on his side). As a result, they fight frequently.

    The society is set up so that if they rebel, they have to turn against each other, making it more of a literal war. (Although there isn't really bloodshed involved.) And it makes it much more interesting.

    Thanks for the post, Jill! It's really helpful to get reminded of those again.
    Katia

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    1. You're welcome, Katia! When there is already strong tension in the story, the dialogue almost flows naturally. It sounds like you've got a great thing going on there. :-)

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  13. Thank you so much for this post! It was a huge help since I have trouble with dialogue =( but thanks again! This was probably the most helpful post for me so far =D

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    1. I'm so glad, Brittney! Keep at it. You can do it!

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  14. I LOVE this post. You had me laughing and laughing. Thanks!

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  15. I liked the for-example dialogue and how you added layers to it until it was at it's peak. Great tips.

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