How to Write Realistic Dialogue

jack nicholson you can't handle the truth

If you’re like me, you are always on the lookout for tips on improving your writing. One vital aspect—the most important, according to many bestselling authors—is dialogue.

Skunk up this part of your manuscript and all your strengths (characterization, world-building, suspense, etc) will prove no more consequential than a gas blast in a windstorm. Master it and your work will speak for itself with professional confidence.

What makes dialogue good and what makes it bad?

Award-winning writers like Stephen King assure us that good dialogue is ‘real’ dialogue. This means that even when it is crass, incomplete, or downright rule-breaking, it’s okay, so long as it is real. What do they mean by ‘real’? In his memoir of the craft of writing, aptly titled On Writing, King states that real dialogue is honest, meaning it sounds like everyday people talking. Your neighbors, coworkers, family and friends all speak honestly (even when they’re lying), because when they speak they use everyday words in the most casual manner.

Real Dialogue is like, you know, totally real

They don’t speak like a King James Bible (poetic, but even back then I bet ‘doth’ and ‘stinketh’ were not used in casual convo), they don’t speak like a thesaurus (real homies say awesome, not stupefying), and they certainly never speak like a hackneyed supervillain (choose your next words carefully, Mr. Bond, they may be your last).

The best tip for developing this aspect of your writing is to go thee forth into the world and listen to real people speaking honestly. You will hear pointless drivel. You will listen to banal palaver, men passionately discussing nothing. You will hear the occasional threat, its sincerity difficult to detect, but honest—always honest whether it is meant for a laugh or to intimidate. All of it makes for the best possible schooling you can get where it concerns learning how to write dialogue. And it’s totally free. (Just don’t get caught eavesdropping on strangers—such a thing is frowned upon in civilized society, but an author must sometimes step on toes if he wants to break out.)

When you listen long enough, you will begin to pick up the rhythm and flow of real dialogue. Then you will be able to write it honestly—and you may even begin to join in the conversation yourself.

One good paragraph of dialogue also reveals character better than any info-dump ‘telling’ could hope to accomplish in ten paragraphs. Done right, you can reveal the deeper nature and the peccadilloes and the philosophies and the hopes and goals of your characters through dialogue.

Personal pet peeve: Please oh please, don’t make your characters say ‘A storm is—’ well, you know the rest. I can’t even bear to write that infamous cliché!

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This is all just skimming the surface, of course. Advanced studies of dialogue can show you how to layer it, so that your speakers convey subtext between the lines. Check out this site for a guide to authors who own the dialogue aspect of writing.

For a straightforward example of subtext in dialogue, you might consider watching Smallville. The scenes between Lex and his father Lionel are filled with tension and subtext. Almost everything these two characters say to each other possesses subtext, one or two subtle layers of different meanings. Their words are foils, and they duel like professional swordsmen. Listen carefully as they discuss the issue of the day, because beneath their everyday words are barbs; they prick each other with their words.

This is starting to sound like sexual innuendo, so I’ll stop. The point is, Smallville shows two sides in the way its writers write dialogue. Whenever Lana speaks it is melodramatic and often cliché. Clark Kent’s parents have better lines, but at times even they sound a bit stilted. When it comes to the Luthor’s—especially Lionel—however, the writers seem to step up their game. You can learn a lot from Smallville, both what to do and what not to do.

Well there it is. I am learning how to write dialogue, and I hope you have picked up a tip or two here for your own work. Good luck and God bless!

Game of Thrones Finale: A Writer’s Perspective

jon snow and ned stark

It’s over, done with, finito, the end of an era!

The greatest television show in history has reached its conclusion—and so, naturally, countless opinions manifest in the form or worshipful odes or vicious diatribes.

No doubt there are already thousands of reviews chronicling the Game of Thrones finale, but there should be one from a writer’s perspective. Good or bad, great or horrible, we writers can always learn something from these things, so let’s see what Game of Thrones aka The Song of Ice and Fire has to teach us.

A Twist is Not the Same as Good Storytelling

Something M Night Shyamalan took a while to grasp is something the writers of GoT failed to learn: twists should be considered a tool in a writers’ arsenal, not the goal.

From a literary standpoint, the unfaithfulness of the finale with all that had come before it was dissapointing. The series has shown time and again, in brutal ways, that whatever terrible things can happen, will happen. We’ve come to love the series for this very thing, this unique and entertaining—and often flagrant—penchant for flying in the face of traditional fantasies.

GoT is not your traditional fantasy, where all the main players in the fellowship make it to the end, where those who survive all have happy endings. In Westeros and Essos, bad things happen and no one is exempt. This has been made clear throughout the series.

But the finale decided to upend this theme and wrap everything up nicely with a bow.

It made me kind of miss the old Night King.

the night king

Hardest Decision of Jon Snow’s Life—Made in the Time it Takes to Stroll Past a Dragon

Perhaps we could have swallowed the writing of the finale if we had been given time to see and to process character motivation.

But this necessary literary device was sacrificed for spectacle, a la the MCU. We long suspected Jon would be forced to kill Daenerys to prevent a mad reign. And we saw her becoming mad. But Jon didn’t seem to realize this until early in the final episode. When Tyrion finally convinced him she needed to be bled, he simply takes a stroll up the street, passes Drogon the sleepy bouncer, and approaches the completely unprotected Queen of the Ash Heap. They have a little discussion (I was disappointed we didn’t get to see one final Dany berserker rage and hear one last classic Targaryen threat, just to remind us of her madness), and then Jon simply slides it in, nice and easy.

We didn’t get to see this tragic young man come to accept his tragic role over the course of several episodes. He ‘says’ he loves her. But that, my dear writers, is telling, not showing.

wolvering vs jean greyThe similar scene in X-Men: The Last Stand, where Wolverine kills his beloved Jean, is far more powerful, for a number of reasons:

(1) the music is moving and builds to a crescendo (2) we are actually shown how difficult this decision is for Logan

(3) much time—most of the movie—was given to building up to this scene, lending it gravitas, and

(4) we glimpse Jean’s humanity in the end.

But the GoT version felt rushed. If this was the culmination of all that had come before, then the decision should have weighed heavily on Jon for some time, and we should have been shown him reaching this heart-wrenching decision through much time and psychological turmoil. He reached the decision and acted on it in a time span of roughly ten minutes. It felt like an afterthought, which in literary terms was disrespectful to the build up that had so excellently been established and executed for many seasons. Continue reading “Game of Thrones Finale: A Writer’s Perspective”

How To Stay Positive in Your Writing Career

beautiful sunny forest path

What happens after you do everything the writing and publishing ‘experts’ advise you to do, and your writing career is still middling at best, a flamingo flapping its wings in a slow tedious takeoff?

I have become convinced that the indie publishing world is much like the traditional publishing world: you have to know the right people.

In traditional pub, you need to have personal connections to literary agents and interns, people in the know. –It also helps to have publishing credits before you can get published.– In indie pub you need a stellar, established social (online) standing, with vast email lists, family who support you and friends who will post reviews for you.

But what happens if you are on the fringes?

You need to be a Writer, Publisher, and Marketer

What if: you were not blessed with built-in connections (Christopher Paolini), you weren’t born with a natural affinity for making connections (the gift of gab), you don’t have the money to travel to and sign up for expensive writing conventions to make those connections anyway; your family is not interested or helpful in any way, and none of your friends are readers (you wouldn’t trust non-readers with reviewing your work anyhow)?

In such a position, ‘breaking out’ seems about as easy as breaking out of a super-max.

I’m not complaining. Quite the opposite; I intend to chug along as I always have, persistence wins the day and all that. I do what they advise and make some sales, but until the kindhearted souls who purchase my books decide to take a moment to leave a positive review, I cannot imagine the pace of sales will change.

In such a case (more common than you think), you have to wonder: is it insane to continue pursuing something when the result is always the same? When does your joy in the act of creation begin to wane?

But that’s wading into semantics and philosophical waters.

The Question All Writers Face

The question you, as a struggling writer (or more aptly, a struggling publisher) need to ask is: If I knew my career would never take off, would I still keep writing?

Think about that for a second.

If your answer is NO, then maybe you’re just spinning your wheels, expending time and thought and creative energy on something unfruitful when you could be spending it all on something far more rewarding in your own esoteric way.

If on the other hand your answer is YES, then none of the above should get you down. You are a dream warrior, valiantly pursuing your dream no matter the struggle, heartache, frustrations and the tantalizing doorways teasing new worlds that you might someday enter.

One day your muse might come along, see your AMS ad, click over to your books’ page, purchase your brilliant work, and then–angel that she is–leave a sterling review of the book she now lists among her Top Ten. It could happen. That tiniest glimmer of hope is enough to keep the ink in some writers’ pens.

So ask yourself that question. Would I keep writing if I knew it would never make me money?

If you love what you do, then do what you love regardless of the lack of return on your investment. Some people go their whole lives without ever discovering their passion, without ever finding some endeavor that makes them happy. Your joy in the act of creation can carry you forward—while you also keep a day job to support you and yours.

There are plenty of inspirational stories out there, real tales of successful writers who spent years toiling in anonymity, knowing—like you—nothing but rejection or the echoing empty hallways of neglect.

Then something happened; the right person entered their life. Maybe that person left a review and spread the word to everyone she knew about this unknown authors’ awesome work.

The Sum of the Whole

I tapped out this little posit not just for my own edification, but for the benefit of all those who also struggle with pre-break-out writer’s blues (or at least of all those who struggle with that and who happen to stumble here to buckelsbooks).

For further encouragement, you might check out bustle’s post on successful authors who began in miserly conditions, who once struggled just like you and I, and who forged ahead despite their chronic failure to reach new heights of publishing success.

I pray God may bless your endeavors, and that you meditate on Matthew 6:33:

Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’

(But don’t seek the kingdom just to receive these things—tricky isn’t it?)