Jan 28, 2011

You Talkin' to Me?

We all know that dialogue is often used to provide backfill. Providing that backfill in dialogue between a couple of characters can be a much more interesting way to share that information with your readers than resorting to a lengthy narrative information dump -- but if the dialogue isn't written well, there's very little difference.

This:

She walked into the house and took a deep breath. She'd spent many happy hours here as a child, sitting on the floor while her grandmother and her friends spent endless hours at the quilting frames, playing with the dolls her grandmother had kept just for her, escaping the turmoil her parents' trouble marriage created at home.
Is not much different from this:

She walked into the house and took a deep breath. "I can't believe I'm back here again," she said to Bob. "I spent so many happy hours here when I was little . . . I used to sit under the quilting frame while my grandmother and her friends were quilting. And she had the loveliest dolls. She kept them here just for me. It was really my only escape from the ugliness at home." 

Putting quotations around the information doesn't turn it into strong, useful dialogue.

One of the first things you have to consider when you're creating dialogue that will divulge some of the character's backfill is who she's talking to. Obviously, here, she's talking to Bob. But who is Bob? If Bob is a long-time friend, their conversation will be different than if he's a new acquaintance, and different still if he's a family member. If he's only a friend, their conversation will be different than if he's someone she's developing romantic feelings for, and if those feelings are already developed, the conversation will be different still.

The first great key to writing believable dialogue is to remember who's involved and to tailor the dialogue accordingly. Remember that most real people are reluctant to just pour out information in front of people who don't know them very well, and no matter how honest we may pride ourselves on being, we are usually quite anxious to present ourselves in a favorable light.

One of the biggest mistakes writers make with dialogue is writing conversations in which people divulge information they wouldn't really share under the circumstances. Remember that everything in your book must be motivated, not just the character's back stories. Their actions and dialogue in every scene must be well-motivated, too.

Characters that move around on stage without good reason feel stilted and unrealistic, and the same is true for characters that say things without good reason. One of my least favorite things as a reader is to pick up a novel in which the characters are trying to learn some kind of secret. They visit someone who may have some information, but who has a very good reason not to share that information. Suddenly, for no reason except that the author wants to share the information with me, the character begins to share things no real person in those circumstances would share.

Dialogue that's only motivated by the author's need to get the information onto the page will never feel realistic. The characters involved have to be motivated to share the information. Sometimes the hardest work you'll do in a day of writing will be to figure out why a particular character would say the thing you need him to say, and then figure out how he'll say it.


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