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Love Your Dialogue

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I was at a writing group the other day and someone asked about how to write good dialogue.  I sat there for a moment thinking, then I realized I had a helluva lot to say on the subject.

I used to be afraid of dialogue (see my post about it HERE) but now I love it and I find the more I write it and critique it in other people’s stories, the more I’m learning how to rock it.

So here are my tips so far on how to love your dialogue (and hopefully have other people love it too):

Stop Cramming Backstory

Stop cramming backstory into your dialogue now.  Stop it.  Nobody wants to hear your characters tell their whole life story in conversation because it feels forced and completely unnatural.  There are very few situations in life where I have ever had to sit down and tell a person my whole life story.  In relationships and friendships it comes in bits, over time.  As far as you should go is a vague mention of something here or there that can be filled in as the story progresses.  No one likes* info dumps and long boring histories, especially in dialogue.

*Okay so maybe some people might like it, but I would think those people are few and far between.

Don’t think of dialogue as story

Dialogue is character, not story.  This basically means that if you are trying to progress the story too much within dialogue than you are probably doing your characters a disservice*.  So just take some time to make sure that your action isn’t entirely being pushed through in conversation, because it can come across as stilted and it can even dilute certain opportunities to use dialogue for character building.

*The exception here would be a story that is made entirely of dialogue.

Talk around meaning

This one was brought up by an awesome lady in my group.  She said that people don’t often say what they really mean, so generally you should avoid flat out honesty.  I totally agree.  People use all sorts of psychological tricks to get around getting to the point.  You can use this to your benefit in conversations.  Beat around the bush a little (if it’s in your characters character), play with double meanings and metaphor and allow your characters to be reluctant to say what they mean.  It’s only human after all.

Try accents

I’m sure some people wouldn’t agree, but I say give them a try.  If they suck, you can easily change them, but there’s no harm in experimenting!

Keep it short

People don’t usually talking in long, sprawling sentences.  They are generally short and quick and use sounds and abbreviations and contractions.  Think really hard before allowing your character to say ‘It is’ instead of ‘It’s’.  Always take the shortest route possible and minimize the word count*.  The shorter it is, the faster the read and the more it will feel like real conversation.

*Unless of course your character is a long winded kinda person.

Dialogue tags are distracting

He said, she said, he shouted, she laughed.  We get it.  Do your best to minimize.  Your characters voices should be unique enough and the context should be concrete enough that we know who’s talking without dialogue tags.  If you need them, try to tie them in with actions as well, so if we have to be distracted, it’s for a good reason.

Get your lingo right

Don’t be the person who has teenagers saying ‘radical’.  No one says that anymore unless they’re being sarcastic.  If you have to, go stalk some teenagers and listen to them.  Listen to the way people talk, the words they choose and even if you can’t find anyone to listen to, just think about it hard.  I’m sure you’ve talked to a million people in your lifetime and you can pull up some memories of how they speak.  Be careful with teenagers though, they seem to be the hardest.

Get in the flow

Read out loud.  Feel the flow.  Match the flow to the tone of the conversation and the quality of the relationship.  Try to imagine what’s happening in each characters mind. I wrote a scene the other day where a character was on the verge of tears.  I remembered what it feels like to be almost crying, so I wrote her dialogue with single word responses.  I know when I’m about to bawl any single word could send me over the edge and so I get down to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or ‘okay’.  Doing this added to the scene because it gave it an undercurrent of being on the edge of a breakdown.  Remember that the flow of a conversation and patterns of dialogue change for any given situation.  Match that and you’ll be laughing.

Those are my tips, I’ll update if I think of more.

Feel free to comment and add your own.  Tell me about dialogue challenges and successes you’ve had.  Tell me how you’ve learned to love your dialogue.

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Don’t be afraid (of dialogue)

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Dialogue used to freak me out.

I thought it was a bit of jerk.

I wrote my stories with minimal dialogue and it worked, for a time.  The problem with a lack of dialogue is stories tend to get thick and dense pretty fast.  Now thick and dense isn’t always a bad thing, but sometimes it’s good to mix it up.

So I held my breath and dove into the world of dialogue.  I started with just dialogue, nothing more, no descriptions, just simple back and forth between two characters.  I loved it.  It flowed, the characters developed themselves and I found it an absolute joy to write.  After my fudge-thick dialogue free stories it felt effervescent to write in pure conversation.  After that, I wrote another dialogue-only story.  Interestingly, both stories took a turn into the comedic (which I didn’t know I could even accomplish).  This was quite a change from the more moody and dark stories I had been working on before.  So not only did my experimentation lead me to a new found interest in dialogue, but it also led me to an understanding that I can, in fact, write something mildly funny!

Next it was onto a more integrated approach.  I wanted to write something that included both dialogue and non-dialogue descriptions.  I had my doubts about my ability in this department too.  Would it flow well?  Would it feel natural?  The story took a little while to develop (see: Let your story stew) but once I got to writing, it just poured out onto the page as though it had always been there.  It was exciting and I got to know my characters in a way I wasn’t entirely used to.  I got a chance to hear their voices.

Overall I was so inspired by this process that I have decided to pursue thoughts on a new novel.  My last book (sitting unedited on my computer) had little in the way of dialogue for the most part (it is a book of short stories and I only started experimenting more with dialogue half way through).  Now that I have developed a new perspective on conversation in writing I feel as though I am ready to give a longer format story another try.

Dialogue used to freak me out, but now I think it’s awesome. 



What are you afraid of?  Do you ever wonder if your fear is holding you back from a style you might love?  From stories that are waiting to be told?  Take your fears and give them a kick in the butt.  Write something you have always wanted to try.  Do it now!

Have you done it yet?  Great, let me know how it went!

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Decluttering

I hate clutter.

I like things to be clean and smooth and sparse.  I like this in my art, my house and apparently, my writing.

Yesterday I had a great meeting with a writing group that my awesome mother-in-law (Deb) invited me to and I learned about decluttering my stories.  Deb is a writer and an editor and went through my story with a fine toothed comb.  She highlighted all the places where I said too much and cut it out, effectively cleaning house and throwing my clutter in the trash.  When I heard her talking about where I could cut an ‘and’ here and a ‘her’ there I felt a strange and wonderful feeling sweep over me.  I felt cleaner and my story felt more pure.

I love throwing things out.  When I was younger I traveled around Europe and Egypt and Peru and all I had was a backpack.  When I left my bag was full of crap.  Useless junk and books and all the things that made me feel like home.  As I walked and hitchhiked and slept in hostels I met people and I started to shed my belongings, handing them off as mementos of my presence abroad.  By the end I was even giving away my clothes and it left me feeling light and unfettered, free to roam as I pleased.  Now that I am stationary in Toronto, I still practice the same possession management.  I love moving (much to Ben’s dismay) and so I keep our belongings few for the moment when I feel the undeniable urge to uproot and move to a new home.  Now that I have found I can apply this same philosophy to my writing, I am intrigued.

I want to tell lean, undiluted stories, that can sum up a life time of experiences in a handful of words.  I don’t want to drone or bore or ramble.  I want the quality of my stories to reflect the quality of the way I try to live my life, avoiding complications and living for the magic.

Thanks to Deb, Jack and Bill for helping me on the path to decluttering my stories.

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Brainstorming & The Creative Process

Brainstorm

I have been writing just about a story a day now for over a week based on some awesome prompts from Sarah Selecky.  Also, Ben and I have committed ourselves to making a new video each week for our new YouTube Channel.  This means we spend quite a bit of time brainstorming.  Each time I get a prompt or Ben and I begin to discuss  a video concept at our weekly brainstorming session, I freeze for a moment, petrified that the ideas just won’t come.  What if I can’t imagine something new?  What if it’s not quite good enough?  Like most people, I have doubts.  I wonder if one day the well will run dry and I will be all out of stories.  However, I find that once I get into the process of brainstorming and allowing my imagination to roam free, the doubts begin to evaporate and concept development becomes a joyful experience.

The other day in the midst of feverishly writing a story, I was hit with an unbearable migraine.  I was forced into bed with a cold pack on my head and lying there in the dark I found myself bored.  I wanted to keep writing, not be bed ridden.  It was then that I started to think about the creative process.  I thought about ideas and how they formed in the mind, what it felt like and how one would describe it (a post for another time) and I thought about brainstorming and the overall creative process.  So for all you artists out there, here is an initial collection of my best bits of advice complied in bed with a migraine and right now as I’m writing this.

Relax

Don’t Panic.  It’s going to be okay, I promise.  When your shoulders are so tense they’re covering your ears you can’t hear the world and all the inspiration it has to offer.  When your teeth are clenched tight you can’t speak your ideas aloud and make them real.  So just remember, you did it before and you can do it again.

It’s okay if it’s not perfect

Sometimes and idea works and sometimes it doesn’t.  That’s okay.  If you get to the end and you don’t love it, you don’t have to do anything with it!  It can sit in your todo folder for fixer uppers or just go into the reject pile.  Either way, at least you finished something!

Don’t be clingy

Don’t cling to an idea so hard that you can’t let go if it sucks.  Don’t be afraid to let go, there will be plenty more where that came from.  If I have toyed with an idea for more than half a day and it still isn’t coming to me, I usually just toss it in the bin and move on.  Or if I really love it I will make a note of it for later.

Don’t do it if you hate it  

So many times I’ve gotten 3000 words into a story that I am making up as I go and I have hated every second (sometimes brainstorming can be a continual process in the case of a story that is not fully fleshed out for example).  If it hurts and it feels like you are walking through a swamp full of leeches, maybe it’s time to reconsider.  Go back to the beginning and change it up.  Maybe a different perspective?  A different voice?  Maybe the story arc is garbage and needs a new twist?  Keep trying until you get it or toss it far enough a way that by the time it comes back it will be a changed concept.

Find a partner

Ben is my muse.  He inspires me and we work together perfectly.  I would highly recommend finding someone who ‘gets you’ you brainstorm with.  Having another perspective can be totally refreshing, but if they are too different from you in terms of mindset it can just be frustrating.  Sometimes it also helps, if you are stuck on an idea you have come up with alone, to explain the story and where you are trying to go with it.  Suddenly everything seems more clear and a tiny suggestion from your partner can solidify it all.  Usually when I’m stuck I talk to Ben and within five minutes I’m sorted out and excited to keep going.

Pay attention to the world

Everything and anything can be a source of inspiration.  Go outside.  Now.

Commit yourself & reserve the time

Make the time.  Mark it in a calendar.  Make goals. If you don’t commit yourself to a particular goal set you will find yourself flailing around uselessly.  Keep yourself on schedule.  Make a brainstorming day.  Try once a week or once a month, whatever works for you.  Put aside the time and keep it there.  This will mean having to say no to other things at some points, but too bad, you are an artist!  It’s like contributing to your RRSP, a bit painful sometimes, but it will pay off in the long run.

Spontaneity isn’t as important as you think

Spontaneous creativity is overrated.  If we all went around expecting to suddenly be creatively inspired there would be no professional artists out there.  Scheduled brainstorming is just as effective, if not more, than random bursts.  It works because you are dedicated in the moment, you have nothing else on your plate because you have already cleared your calendar.   Would that we all had the time to flit around and be dreamy and inspired all day, but we don’t.  So suck it up and schedule your brainstorming!

Say YES!

The improv artists know it best of all, the art of saying yes.  Being open to life is better than being closed.  Say yes to your ideas, explore then and let them wash over you for awhile before rejecting them outright.  If you never say yes, you never know what gems may be lurking in your subconscious just waiting to be the next big thing.  Say yes to everything, let it all in, then filter it, sort it and toss the crap.  Hopefully by the end you will have something worth reading!

Have any tips on brainstorming and creativity?  Do tell!