Monday, February 02, 2009

"You don't understand!" she shouted angrily...

Yeah, I spend a lot of time thinking about silly titles for my blogs...

Be that as it may, I'm again using Jacqueline's blog last week on dialogue as the theme for my blog on dialogue in commercial genre fiction. Fictional dialogue is not a verbatim recording, not a play-by-play or blow-by-blow. Its purpose in a novel is not veracity but excitement. If, as Swain said, readers read to experience tension, there is nothing less tense than actual conversation.

Character dialogue, like every other part of the story, needs to move the plot along and ramp up the emotions. Without sounding silly, false, strained or trite.


Less so than you think, if for no other reason than good dialogue is out there. You're not being asked, in writing dialogue, to do something no writer has ever done. You're being asked to do what's been done and do it as well, if not better. You have role models. You have templates. You have a plethora of writing-how-to books and blogs like this.

The trick is applying what you learn.

Here's my favorite dialogue writing tip: get your characters angry (hence the title of this blog).

I'll explain why this works in a moment. But first, let's revisit what Jacqueline said: fiction is an illusion and fictional dialogue is an illusion of speech. That means word choice is essential. Placement and cadence is a must. Real people ramble on with loads of 'umms' and 'yunnos' and 'dudes' and 'uhs.' Characters should keep those kinds of things to a bare minimum. Good dialogue goes for the vital organs, which in this case should be the reader's heart and brain. In that way, it's not unlike poetry or song writing. Good dialogue has impact

But dialogue is also very often the writer's tool to impart needed information because (good) dialogue moves more quickly than narrative.

So what's the writer to do if she has a good chunk of information that--gasp!--might even have a tinge of backstory, and she needs somehow to get that before the reader without having it seem like an info dump

Get the characters angry. Why

Listen to any angry conversation between friends, lovers, strangers. I know. I said fictional dialogue isn't real dialogue but there are some similarities. The one time it feels "natural" for people to explain something in detail, or for people to recount the past, is when they're having an argument. It's a defensive thing: I'm angry with you because... and then the laundry list of past foibles comes out

Anger is a really good way to sneak some back story in.

In Shades of Dark, tensions are building between Captain Chaz Bergren and her lover, Gabriel "Sully" Sullivan, due in part to a new crewmember on their ship: a Stolorth Ragkiril named Del. Del is self-assured, flirtations, confident, aggressive and sexy as all get out. He's also supremely dangerous--something Chaz senses more than Sully does.
In this little snippet of dialogue, Chaz "dumps" her reasons on Sully in a telepathic conversation. But it also serves to bring the reader up to speed with some of the basics in the conflict and reminds them of things they may have forgotten:

I was standing under the steamy streams of the ship’s recycled water when the lavatory door nudged open. Sully, dressed in his usual black, leaned against the edge of the sink, sipped from the cup in his right hand, and held another for me in his left.

“I told Dorsie they were both for you so she wouldn’t try to poison me.”

“Find Burke’s lab ship, unmask Tage, and she’ll love you again,” I said, tapping off the water and turning on the dryer cycle. I circled slowly, ignoring Sully because nothing could be heard over the noise anyway.

Except this way, he reminded me. Then: Chaz, Del is not the problem you perceive him to be.

Let’s see. He ambushes me on Narfial, blocks you, wanted to neutralize Marsh, and then locks you away from me in some mystical woo-woo place that used to be a shuttle bay. In between all that, he has an annoying habit of calling me “angel” and “lover,” walks a very thin line between harmless flirtation and practiced seduction, and then has the balls to say I’m touchy. I have no idea why I think he’s a problem.

Because the scene is tinged with anger, it's tinged with emotion. And as Swain teaches, it's the author's job to manipulate the emotions of the reader. So it makes sense, then, that dialogue laced with emotions is one of the ways to do that.

When characters are angry, characters--like real people--tend to say things to justify the anger, to bolster their argument. That justification is a sly way of sneaking information in.

So instead of an info dump where Mortimer fumes over the fact that Gladys is late--again--for their lunch date:

Mortimer drummed his fingers on the tabletop, anger rising with each tap. It was twelve-thirty. Gladys should have been here an hour ago. He hated the way she was always late. He wondered if she was playing some kind of control game with him. He'd known her for twelve years--ever since that fateful day in Mrs.
Chelligump's English class at Beachside High School. That's when he first fell in love with her but now that he thought about it, she was late coming to class. So late that he ended up talking to Gertrude instead. Dating Gertrude. And marrying Gertrude. He shuddered...

You can do it in dialogue when Gladys arrives:

The drumming of Mortimer's fingers halted abruptly as Gladys approached.

She smiled as she slid into the empty seat at the table. "Hey, Morty,

"You're late, Gladys. Late! I've been waiting an hour."

"There was a long line at the grocery store. What did you want, I should leave without paying?" She shrugged. "I'm not a thief like your ex-wife."

Mortimer felt his eyes narrow. Why did she always bring up Gertrude? "Don't start that old argument."

"It's not old! I know you saw her last week and I know you loaned her money again. And yes," she continued, waving one hand to stop whatever was about to come out of his mouth in protest, "I know we're all supposed to be friends now. For the sake of good old Beachside High. But I'm tired of--"

"She helped me out then. I owe her now."

"She wrote your senior year term paper for you, Morty. Twelve years ago. Twelve years! I think you owe her nothing!"

and so on and so forth...

The next time you have backstory or information you need in the novel yet cringe because it feels like an info dump, turn the information into confrontation. Interlace the information with emotions. Have your characters rake up bits and pieces of the past that will, instead of boring the reader, intrigue him.

It's also a handy way of doing a little on-the-fly characterization.


HOPE’S FOLLY, Book 3 in the Gabriel’s Ghost universe, coming Feb. 2009 from RITA award-winning author, Linnea Sinclair, and Bantam Books:

“Your life is at risk fighting for the Alliance,” he said finally.

“I’m aware of that, sir.”

“We’re underfunded, understaffed. You’ll be serving—quite possibly fighting—under conditions you’ve never faced before. Being a rebel is not the glamour and glory the vids make it out to be.”

“I’m aware of that too, sir.”

“The danger doesn’t concern you?”

“Danger concerns any good officer. But I’m ImpSec, sir. Special Protection Service.”

“Polite, professional, and prepared to kill?”

“Yes, sir.”

He nodded slowly. “And if I put you in the same room with the man responsible for the death of your father, and handed you a Carver-Twelve, would you be able to press the trigger?”

Did he really doubt that? “Absolutely, sir.”

He pulled his Carver out of the right side of his shoulder holster and held it up toward her. The grip of a second Carver—another 12, she thought—curved out of the left side.

She took it, not understanding. Did he mean for her to carry his weapon? A small thrill raced through her. Okay, it wasn’t that small. A Carver-12, and his as well. It was still warm from the heat of his body.

“Why haven’t you pressed the trigger?” he asked quietly.


  1. Dialogue doesn't trip me up.

    It's descriptions that just about kill me. I have a visual imagination. I think in pictures. I can 'see' the story in my head and I can't seem to comprehend that the reader can't. If only they were telepathic...

  2. Thank you Linnea. You solved a problem that I was working on. *G*

  3. Kimber An:

    Ah, then your problem really IS dialogue!!!

    That's why you can't solve "description." So clear to me, now how to explain?

    My post today is on dialogue, but you've given me a whole bunch more dialogue diatribes to lay down here.

    I have to go write that post!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  4. Jacqueline, oh thank goodness!

    I sure hope you have some secret trick which will empower me to conquer this problem once and for all. It seems like I have to go back a bazillion times to write, re-write, and fix and revise and edit and bang head on my computer board to get my descriptions right. I know there's some cosmic disconnection, but I can't figure out what it is to save my life.

  5. Anonymous4:17 AM EST

    One of the tricks I've found is remembering that people rarely speak in complete sentences, and often don't worry about being grammatically correct. Having one or two characters who always use proper English can be fun, as it establishes a particular character trait.

    For the longest time I struggled with dialogue, but now it comes rather more easily. Practice. Practice. Practice. The more you write it, and the more you try to improve upon what you've done before, the better you get at it.

    Oh, and btw. Where'd that first picture come from? I really like it. Yes, yes... I find a woman throwing a punch like that extremely sexy.