I’ve been on a three-month sabbatical, of sorts, except I’m not a teacher, I didn’t get paid for it, and I didn’t travel anywhere. Perhaps I should re-phrase: I quit blogging for the last three months because I simply didn’t have time while trying to create a new website for LDStorymakers, an author’s guild to which I belong. (I’m the Director of Communications for the group and, hence, am over their online presence among other things.)
In any case, I haven’t forgotten that I promised to post the 14 tips Karen Joy Fowler (author of The Jane Austen Book Club and other novels) shared during a writer’s retreat I attended in Maui some six or seven years ago. Keeping in mind that she writes literary fiction, here they are:
- Don’t let the setting disappear during your dialogue. Remember, the dialogue is happening during a particular time and in particular place and the reader needs to be there with the characters as they talk. So you, as the writer, cannot afford to disengage from those surroundings.
- To keep the reader on track with who’s talking, (a) never use a verb other than “said” with dialogue, (b) never use an adverb to modify “said” (as she put it, “The adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb.”) (c) express movement by a person before or after talking, and (d) start a new paragraph every time another person begins to talk. She did say you can use an occasional “asked,” but it’s almost impossible to overuse “said.” Also, consider not using a tag at all. If you have a character do something and then a line of dialogue, the reader will connect the dots.
- If a line of dialogue is funny, let it stand on its own. Don’t try and prop it up with a smile or laughter written in.
- Don’t fatten the dialogue by adding pauses (like umm, er…, etc.). In place of a pause, break up the sentence naturally by putting “she said” or a character’s movement in the middle of it (and the movement should be something bigger than shrugging or smiling…she said there are far too many shrugs and smiles).
- Generally, avoid ellipses (…) in dialogue.
- In a conversation, frequently the first and last phrases can be cut. You don’t need all the niceties. Start and end where it’s really interesting.
- Remember that dialogue is usually much more about how people imagine they are than how they really are. It’s kind of a performance, so you, as the writer, can juxtapose how they really are with how they present themselves to others. Don’t be afraid to bring out the hypocritical side of your characters in your dialogue.
- In creating dialogue, always ask “What does this person want?” rather than “How does this person feel?” She said that, at heart, we are all pretty selfish creatures and we’re always angling for something when we speak.
- Remember there is almost always a power dynamic between any two people talking, with one having more power and the other having less. This means one character will talk more and the other less in any scene…and that dynamic will change from conversation to conversation depending on the scene. The one in power will not always be the same as the story progresses.
- In her opinion, dialogue is not good at all in advancing plot. It’s good for tone and building on the character. In fiction, you often show and sometimes tell, but good dialogue is almost always showing, and not telling. (My other instructor at the retreat, Gail Tsukiyama, disagreed with her on this point about dialogue not being good for advancing plot, but did concede that good dialogue should always show more than it tells.)
- Good dialogue keeps you, as the writer, invisible by not being patently helpful. It should feel natural…something they’d actually say, not what you need them to say.
- Use dialogue to help pull in things outside the arc of the story that are interesting or help set your story’s time or place. This can particularly be done by using conversations overheard by the main character.
- Good dialogue makes the work more real and less planned. You can do this through eavesdropping (For example, imagine having one of your characters overhear this piece of dialogue: “I don’t know what else I can tell you. She rolled down the window, he jumped out, and the gator got him!” If the reader had been drifting along in the story by this point, that piece of dialogue, or something similar, would certainly wake him up as long as it came across as something credible the character would overhear) or by undermining a lying character’s credibility (remember that liars tend to say the same thing two or more times in an effort to get their story across). Misunderstandings make for great dialogue (when people hear a word incorrectly, for example, funny conversations result).
- Finally, remember that dialogue is the fun part and it doesn’t need to match what’s going on in the story. (This last approach applies more to literary fiction than genre fiction and is particularly reflective of Ms. Fowler’s style of writing.)