Category Archives: On Writing

Five Ways to Write Strong Dialogue

Every writer struggles with elements of craft. Some with putting cohesive, illuminating prose on the page, others with developing elements of plot, others still with brevity, and still others with imbuing their stories with living atmosphere. For the most part, we learn how to compensate for these weaknesses using our strengths.

However, writing real and true authentic dialogue is something that many writers consistently strive to improve. Thus: here are five tips for writing authentic dialogue. It’s okay if you disagree or think I’m flatout wrong on this stuff. No way am I claiming expertise. But maybe this will be helpful for you. I’m only putting down what I try to remember when I’m writing.

1. Choose between dialogue and narrative

One of the common pitfalls of dialogue is that some writers don’t identify what should be dialogue and what should be narrative, e.g.:

John asked Laura how she felt about wine-tasting

vs.

“How do you feel about going wine tasting?” asked John.

Dialogue characterises the speaker more than narrative, so if a line of dialogue is delivered as opposed to information being delivered via narrative, the dialogue needs show something about the character. Most “bad” dialogue isn’t bad–it just puts too much focus, and therefore expectation, on the words being said, when they don’t say anything about the speaker. The above line of dialogue doesn’t show us anything about John–it’s just information–therefore, it works better as narrative. In order to use dialogue effectively, in this case, the way John speaks–the words he actually chooses to use–should be carefully selected to allow them to say something about him.

“Listen. I’m–well. I was thinking we could maybe go wine tasting next Saturday.” works as dialogue because it implicitly shows the way John is feeling.

As opposed to

John nervously asked Laura if he could take her wine-tasting, which isn’t very interesting or illuminating narrative. This further acts as a good example of the benefits of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’.

2. Remember that most communication is nonverbal

We’ve all been told not to cross our arms in a job interview because body language says more about what we are thinking and feeling than the words that come out of our mouths. It applies, also, to dialogue.  Allow your dialogue to be realised by physical action. The emotion/thought/mood–the meaningful intention–is made clear through context. Again, this is one arena in which the classic “Show, don’t tell” advice is easiest to exemplify:

Laura leaned her head against the car window. “Wine tasting?” she said. “Sure. If you want.”

works better than:

“Wine tasting? Sure. If you want,” sighed Laura.

which itself works better than:

“Wine tasting? Sure. If you want,” said Laura, who had grown bored.

3.  Dialogue is an approximation

Dialogue does not mirror general day-to-day speech, but distills it down into its most meaningful parts. When characters are having on on-page conversation, ensure that every line contributes to at least two of three elements: character, plot, or atmosphere. Preferably all three. This can be accomplished through consideration of exact words used, (generally the fewer the better), a plot that is already moving at a good pace and gives a character an opportunity to give a meaningful response, and a contextual, implicit, physical detail that reinforces the emotional resonance already present in the scene (see tip #1).

Example:

When a deer crossed the road and disappeared into the trees, John slowed the car.  Dusk darkened in the treetops. “If it’s not your thing,” he said, “you can just say so.” 

4. Everyone lies

The fulcrum of good fiction is conflict–we all know this. And in meaningful conflict, (where something is at stake), we usually don’t express ourselves wholly or honestly–honesty is a risk. The things we say are tempered,  contrived, or just plain made up. It is through conflict that our inner worlds and outer worlds become bridged, but information that crosses that bridge becomes muddied by emotion. In short: usually we don’t say exactly what we mean. Or we say its opposite. Let your characters tell small, emotionally-driven lies.

“No,” said Laura. “Wine-tasting is fine. It’s nice.” She leaned forward and turned up the radio.

5. A piece of dialogue is, itself, a story

Like stories, a conversation has a beginning, a middle, and an end. When you are writing dialogue, ensure that the characters both want something out of it. In the wine-tasting example, John wants to take Laura wine-tasting and the dialogue is the story of him wanting to know how she feels about it within the greater context of the implied whole story.

In this conversation, it’s clear that Laura doesn’t want to go wine-tasting but doesn’t, for one reason or another, want to hurt John, though she does want him to know she’s not wholly invested in the idea or, perhaps, the relationship itself. If we were to guess the rest of John and Laura’s conversation, we might think that John will continue to press Laura about the wine-tasting, and that she will continute to placate, elude, or otherwise side-step the issue. This means that the tension will rise. Compelling dialogue often follows the same narrative structure as a story itself, which if you didn’t know looks like this:

structure

The conversation may reach that climactic boiling-point, but if we are writing authentic fiction we will remember that we, as fully-realised human beings, are often unwilling to plunge into conflict, into emotional risk, and what matters then most often is what we don’t say; this brings us to the unsaid. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that what’s left unsaid can be more emotionally evocative and transformative than the hardest-hitting “I don’t love you anymore”.  This cultivates tension and compelling stories draw out and relieve tension effectively. What’s left unsaid should honestly be part of this list, but other writers have put it finely here and here and here.

A few quick and dirties:

Understand dialogue tags. Cut everything that isn’t completely necessary. Read aloud. (If you’ve never read your dialogue aloud, read your favourite author’s work aloud, first. You will begin to know). Always remember that each person comes in to a conversation wanting something, and that they should either get what they want, or not, which is to say, cultivate tension.

Finally: Let your characters say what they want, even if it’s yabba-dabba-do. You can always cut it later.

I hope you find this useful. Feel free to add your own tips and tricks in the comments. Pretty much any time you feel like, honestly.

Bonus Prompt: Finish John and Laura’s dialogue.

Currently Listening to: The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy — Love Kittens

Currently Reading: The Quarry– Damon Galgut

Current location: Licking the bottom of the rain-barrel

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On London Short Story Festival

22nd June

Started the morning at The Hard in Portsmouth, waiting in the thick heat for the coach with my old blue rucksack and a few brittle women and shuffling mendicants. The tide was out. Trains rattled into Portsmouth Harbour station. A working-class gentleman with a tattoo of a star on his hand hollered for someone to help him work the ticket machine, but no one helped. He got on the phone and hollered to someone on the line about how no one would help him with the ticket machine. When he got off the phone, he asked us all again, so I went over and had a look at the machine with him, which for whatever reason never asked for a destination. I had to tell him that I couldn’t help him. He said it was all right and shook my hand. The coach arrived. We all got on, the gentleman as well; he must’ve spoken to the driver. He was maybe thirty five or forty but thin and weathered. He sat across from me and smiled at me; already he was back on the phone telling someone that he was on his way, on his way, to see the kids. He had many conversations on the telephone while we all rode on the coach. He drank kingsized Desperados and spoke about a lost set of keys, about the keys being left in a legless woman’s house. He presented the narrative of the lost keys like mystery novel: That was the last place I remember being, he told someone on the phone. Start there. Four or five times I heard the story of him getting blotto  the night before, about the keys, about at some point falling out with his brother.  He talked on the telephone about the life he was making on the south coast, that things were good and people were kind. He listed people who’d let him sleep on sofas. He wept, snuffling like a little boy, not seeming to mind who heard. He kept telling people on the telephone: If you see my brother, tell him I love him.

Getting to London took a little longer than I’d expected so I hustled to Victoria station and got lost in its shopping-mallesque labrynth and found the station and got lost again looking for a toilet and a place to buy a packet of gum and found those and then went underground. I waited in the queue to buy a ticket because I didn’t want to be the one shouting for help for the ticket machine. It was pretty clear about what happens when you ask for help at a ticket machine.

On my way to Picadilly I tried to imagine how the London Underground was constructed. I wonder if perhaps people in London forget that the underground is a marvel. How many miles of tube, how many trains. I tried to imagine just designing the placement of stairways and escalators to get to and from platforms. The underground is a momument to rival any of London’s statues or stadiums and a living testament of its people.

Waterstone’s Picadilly is a pretty large bookstore as far as bookstores go. I arrived only twenty minutes before my reading but a kind young woman who seemed wholly at ease in the largest bookstore in the heart of London and knew my face somehow showed me upstairs to a little place they’d set up for us. Around a small table were a few other authors talking about their writing and what they were reading and doing. They talked about how things have changed for writers. I didn’t have a lot to say. My stories are okay maybe but it’s tough to weigh in on the big stuff when most of your read-aloud experience comes from reading cantos from Dante to your old roomate’s dog Sam and one time when you read to a bunch of people who’d been told you were Irish and when you got up there your hands shook and your tongue turned to pulp and you knocked the mic off the mic stand. By you I mean me.

But this reading was okay. I read Goodbye Crocodile, (which is the title story of my collection and which Thresholds published on their site a while back). That story is rhythmic and has a heart and is good for reading aloud. It was also about the right word count. The people seemed to like it and I was able to meet a few of them afterward. I didn’t knock the mic off the stand because there wasn’t one. I’ll put that in the plus column. After the reading was over I was very lucky to meet Stuart Evers and AL Kennedy and Anita Sethi. I’m pretty sure at one point I got distracted by a huge collection of stories from McSweeny’s and might have snubbed AL a little. I don’t think she minded. She’s got herself pretty together, I thought, and was talking to people she knew already. I introduced myself to Stuart because I didn’t know who he was but everyone else did, so I figured it was a good idea to know him. I told him so and he was exceptionally kind and bought a copy of Goodbye Crocodile before we saw Anita read her piece. The authors were great, yes, and everyone was very nice, sure, but it must be stated that the fires were lit and bellowed and fed by the Spread the Word staff. I’d have thought they were being paid to smile because they were doing it so much.

What was best, though, were the attendees. Many notes being taken, questions asked. Writers all of them. Not would-be writers but writers because they are writing and finding their heart. Listening and thinking and writing and reading happened all over the place. So many words spilled on the floor you could slip in them. And readers. People who love stories and who honour them. Which inspired the hell right out of me, really. Writing is a pretty solitary act so it’s easy to forget about the real people out there. Stories get written and then they go out there and find people, and sometimes those people get a chance to come find each other and to come find you. Which is what London Short Story Festival was all about.

Thanks, LSSF. See you next year.

Oh, and PS.

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On Why I Write

This is a short article I wrote last year for The Huffington Post. It has been revised for clarity and length.

Why do you write? Discuss in the comments.

———————————————————————————–

I was working on a spreadsheet in my office and it was getting into me like a poison. I was sat at my desk, the air-conditioning was on. I was surrounded by sharp-dressed professionals. I had been working the spreadsheet for maybe only an hour, which in terms of being a real-life working office person is probably nothing, but there it was. My tongue tasted like a busted-open battery.

Here: information squared into a box. Here: mathematics all done, columned and coloured as you pleased. At a nearby desk a co-worker was playing the radio and some hot new number was playing. The number was so clean and sharp and it just went on and on perfectly chorded, digitized, auto-tuned and bass-thrummed, and this co-worker was humming along with it working on her own spreadsheet, which looked very much like mine and contained very much the same sort of information. The air-con blew cold. Good lord was it ever hot outside. Recently I had quit smoking and was in pretty bad spirits. Out the window the breeze was moving in the trees.

I sat there at my desk with my spreadsheet, with the air-con blowing, the co-worker with her tinny machine-music leaning open-mouthed toward her screen turning boxes red and blue. Suddenly, the first line of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl came into my head: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.

Maybe it didn’t mean that much–maybe I’m crazy. Make any assumptions you’d like about me. I’ve made assumptions about you. Not saying they’re right. Here we are together, though: crammed into offices, classrooms, courtrooms. Air-conditioned and ergonomic. Manning the counter at the grocer, the cinema, the department store. Nine hours a day minus one for lunch. Armoured in aprons or business-casual or chameleonic suit-and-tie. Clock-watching. With the dawn we rise muddy-eyed at eight-seven-six in the morning and we’re off!  to the gym. We stair-climb the stair-climber. With faces twisted we run, panting and and sweating, on a treadmill. We run in the fresh cool morning under green trees, in the shadows of skyscrapers, along the water, down the beach where the waves roll blue up the stony shore and hiss pulling out into the sea. We miss the sea because we are counting burned-down calories. We are listening to headphones instead of to the water.

We quit smoking, we quit drinking, we quit cheating, we quit coffee and carbohydrates. Our blood pressure goes down, our debts go up, we lose weight or gain it, we buy elastic-band trousers, we sit on the sofa, we watch The Apprentice on television.

That day in the office, all of a sudden I wanted to leap up, to shout, to push the computer off of my co-worker’s desk and jump up and down on it until it smoked acrid chemical smoke and glass was pressed irretrievably into the carpet. I wanted to scream: We’ve all gone crazy! We’re just sitting around, waiting to die! Run! Run, for Chrissakes! Death is breathing hot down the backs of our shirts! I wanted the other people in the office to be excited, or terrified, or overcome, or–

Of course I didn’t do or say any of this–who could? And what–be fired? Today, standing up and running out of your job because you are inspired by poetry to go out there and do some real actual living counts as an act of incredibly stupid heroism. An act for which you will, perhaps, be lauded, but rarely celebrated, and almost certainly not emulated. And, like most people, I cannot afford to be a hero, stupid or non.

And so I write stories. When I am faced with smallness and inanity, or struck down by the catastrophic grief of life, or in my belly writhes a nest of snakes, stories are the only cure. I need them because I want to run screaming from the office whenthe radio plays an advertisement for mattresses or bank loans or cruises or clothes or cars. But: maybe the mattress salesman is, right now, trying to close up early and, before five, make it to the jeweler’s up the road where he’ll lay down the last payment on a pearl-topped engagement ring for a girl who works in a donut shop. Maybe aboard the cruise ship, right now, in the dark of the South Pacific, a woman plots to murder her husband. Perhaps the man designing the cars is, himself, obsessed with designing ever-safer ones because he was involved in a minor-fender bender in 1992 which has left him with a ridiculous but paralyzing fear of automobiles–I mean, who knows? Stories for me are a window to what is possible. To something larger and more meaningful underneath our day-to-day trivialities.

At night, I open the window so I can feel the breeze. I lay on my back and shut my eyes and focus on the coolness of the sheets against my skin and one at a time I go over all the stories I imagined might have happened that day to the people I saw. I think about someone like me who, sitting at his desk with his clean white spreadsheet, imagines he is descended from a tribe of Euphrates Bedouin.

I don’t think I’m alone here. I hope not. Consider this an invitation. If you are overwhelmed, anxiety-ridden, or simply hungry for more than spreadsheets and bad radio, look for the stories buried in the strata of the everyday. I don’t know what it’ll do for you. I’m not making any promises. But it only because of stories that I am able to get up every morning and go to work. That when the first comes around, I’m okay to just get on with it and pay the rent. It is because of stories that, when I get into bed at night, and the breeze comes through the window, I am able to move through the ritual that enables me to sleep.

 

 

Currently Reading: Go Down Moses by William Faulkner

Currently Listening to: Metamorphosis by Philip Glass

Current Location: The 9th circle of Excel

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