Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
January 2009

How to Write Good Dialog

I think the best novels are ones with lots of dialog. I like dialog above action scenes, description, and thought. To me, dialog is the most important action in a novel. I read a novel to get to know characters, and seeing how they talk to each other tells me more about them than anything else. Maybe this is because I am a woman, but I want to see how a character interacts with another character and becomes changed by that conversation. I want to see how a character refuses willfully to understand another character who is trying desperately to be clear. I want to see a friend who isn't a friend, an enemy who isn't an enemy, and a lover who is stricken speechless by love. It all happens in dialog, the most important human interactions in novels.

If you get dialog right, I suspect that editors will give you more leeway when it comes to other mistakes in your writing, and will be more willing to work with you toward a contract. Sometimes when I am writing dialog, I find that I suddenly understand my characters better and I can see that what they think they want is not what they really want, and that the real engine of my novel is something other than what I thought it would be when I began it. They say that the eyes are the windows of the soul, but that's not in a novel. In a novel, dialog is the window of the soul, and all the descriptions of eyes shining, glowing, or burning will not make up for bad dialog.

I know that a lot of writing books say that the way to write good dialog is to listen to conversation and write it down, to make it as authentic as possible. I think this is terrible advice, unless you possibly are lucky enough to live with people who are professional conversationalists. Most people's conversation is extremely boring. And very unliterary. Lots of "um's," thoughts that are never completed, inside jokes that no one else could possibly understand, silences, and inane trivia. If you are writing the kind of fiction that is meant to show real life instead of being interesting, then don't take my advice on dialog. Go ahead, feel free to use real life dialog to show how stupid people really are, or how mundane the existence of the average member of the human species. I've got loads of German novels I can lend to you.

Interesting conversation happens rarely. I prize a very small number of friends who can sit down and spend two hours talking about a single topic and still not have exhausted it. One of the tricks to this kind of conversation is a willingness not to be offended by any of the ideas presented, even if you don't agree with them. If you have friends like this, you are lucky. Talk to them frequently. Feed them. Bribe them. Send them Christmas presents and free books. You want characters in your novel who are like this.

You also want characters in your novel who won't talk, or who are always saying the opposite of what they are thinking, purely to rile you. These tend to be my family members, and I don't have to invite them over frequently because they come anyway. I'm sure you know office workers who are like this. Some of them are people who will not shut up, though they have nothing to say. Some of them repeat what they heard on the radio, or read in a book, verbatim, with no attempt to screen it for appropriateness. Some of them are like little children who say whatever pops into their heads. Take heart, when you are caught in a conversation that you desperately wish to get out of, that this is all great fodder for the novel in your head. You can't people it with only interesting people. That would be unrealistic. And not nearly as painfully funny.

Probably my most useful tool for writing dialog is my neurotic tendency to replay or preplay dialog in my head. Whenever I am planning to talk to someone or call them on the phone, I tend to play little scenarios in my head where I play both parts. Even if I don't know the person well, I do this, with little branching possibilities of what they might say, and then what I would say if they said that, and so on. It is a very entertaining one-person game. What my neurosis does is teach me about how different choices might lead to different endings. This helps when I am planning out a dialog scene in a novel, because I can then choose how I want it to go, if I want a particular ending. Sometimes I let my characters lead me, but other times the characters would only talk in a particular way and if I want a certain ending, then I have to set up the beginning better.

Replaying dialog also works for different endings. There are lots of situations in real life where I wish I had been wittier, or had said something that hadn't been as stinging, or had made myself sound smarter, or hadn't taken offense. Characters who are in control of situations more than I tend to be can actually do these things in the moment. They can think about what is going on in the here and now and act -- or speak -- so that they get the results that they want. Authors who are neurotic (and let's face it, most of us are!) can't do this in real time, but since we are the gods of our own novels, we can have characters with abilities we don't have. I have characters who know what they want to say because of the effect that will create. I also have characters who can fly. And talk to animals. You know, magic.

It's also useful if you can understand different points of view without disagreeing with them. I really like authors who can have two characters engage in a heated political discussion (either real or fantastical) without ever giving a hint as to which point of view they themselves adhere to. Sometimes reviewers will accuse me of having too heavy-handed a political message in my novels and it makes me laugh because I don't actually believe in the point of view that the reviewer thinks that I do. I try to take this as a compliment, because it means that I have gotten into the mind of other people so well that it sounds like I am passionate because my characters are so passionate. This is probably another sign of mental illness, schizophrenia, and I am simply putting it to good use. By all means, we should use the gifts we have given to us, right?

Dialog comes out of one person's head, but it has to sound like it comes out of many heads. You want to have control of it as a writer, but not too much control. You want it to feel like you're not in control of it, to sound like real characters might say that. But interesting real characters. I go less for verisimilitude when it comes to dialog and more for what moves the plot along, and what moves the character development along. You don't have to put in everything characters would say to each other. Or if you like, write that part. Just edit it out. No one wants to hear everything you did that day, or everything you said. Just the best parts.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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