Guest Post by Raven Oak, author of Amaskan’s Blood
Ooooo! It’s a Siri dialogue!
Go ahead, read it. Heck, you probably did before you even took a glance at my words. If not, you’ve more self-control than most people, so go ahead and give it a read.
Welcome back! What’s the main thing that pops out at you about the dialogue with Siri?
Is it the stilted style–the way both sides feel like talking robots rather than humans? The lack of “tags” like he said, she said? Maybe it’s the fact that as a reader, we have no idea who is talking with Siri? Better yet, maybe it’s that two people (or are they computers? objects?) are talking, while doing little else. Are they standing? Did one of them pick his nose while touching Siri? And while he picked his nose, where is he? Is he in public doing this or sitting behind three computer screens while he wiki-crawls?
Dialogue does more than just show characters talking.
- sets our scene (setting)
- gives us sensory details about our characters and their actions
- gives us backstory
- gives us information on our characters’ motivations
- pushes the plot forward to carry us through action.
One of the marks of a newbie writer is his or her tendency to tell instead of show (which is another article on its own). This tendency often happens because the writer doesn’t understand how to create good and believable dialogue. Here’s an example of telling:
Sonya was a girl like any other girl, except her pigtails stuck out too far, as did her teeth. Her red hair was redder than a crayon, and when she stuck out her tongue, it was red, too. Sonya liked the color red. She felt it brought out the color of her eyes–blue. Or green if she wore certain colors. She thought her eyes were her best feature.
While a pretty little bit of story, we aren’t really in Sonya’s point of view. We’re basically getting description of her and who she is as a character by the narrator telling us these things. One of the ways an author can avoid this is by trickling out these character details through dialogue and action. Let’s visit Sonya again:
Sonya glared at Pete. He stood not one foot from her, his bare feet kicking up dust clouds in the dirt road. When her cheeks flushed to match her red hair, she swore.
“What’s wrong, Pipi?” Pete asked.
She hated that name. His grubby hand reached out and tugged her pigtails. Pigtails that stuck out too far. Just like her teeth. Just like everything. Too big. Too red. Too poor.
“Shut it, Pete.”
Sonya stuck out her tongue, and he pointed an equally grubby finger at it. “Yer tongue’s red, too!”
She should’ve bit his finger, but the blood-stained dirt beneath his nails didn’t warrant the risk. “Nothin’ wrong with the color red, you idgit. Besides, it brings out the color of my eyes.”
His laughter stopped mid-guffaw. He leaned in closer until his button nose near touched her own. “What color are they anyway? If I turn this way,” he said, tilting his head to the right, “they’re green, but iffin I go the other way, they’re blue. Howdja do that anyhow?”
Sonya hid a grin behind her hand. Her eyes were her best feature, or so her mama said, and here was Pete Thomas payin’ her a compliment. Pete Thomas standing in her front yard. Imagine.
Notice that the difference? We have description of our characters and setting (though we could possibly use a little more setting here). We know Sonya probably likes Pete, despite his teasing. We know Sonya doesn’t like her appearance (big red hair, big teeth, etc.), but she likes that her eyes that change color. We also know that Pete possibly likes Sonya in return, and she’s surprised by this fact. The mix of dialogue and action carries our story along at a nice pace, too.
One of the best ways to learn to write dialogue is to go somewhere public, like a coffee shop or restaurant, and listen to people talk. Listen to the cadence. Listen to their word choice, their slang, their accents. (People don’t speak with perfect grammar.) As you listen, see if you can predict what the person will say next. People tend to speak in a predictable pattern once you learn it. Another thing you can do is watch movies. Study how characters speak and interact with each other. Notice that in our “show” example, Sonya and Pete don’t just stand still. They move. They interact with the setting and with each other. They aren’t static computers like Siri. You can also study dialogue in your favorite books and stories. Study what worked and didn’t work. See if you can decipher why it worked and why it didn’t.
(Examples written on the fly by the author. They aren’t representative of polished text, but are learning examples.)
Find out more about Raven Oak and her upcoming book at http://www.ravenoak.net/