Writing better dialogue?

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andrewngn13
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Writing better dialogue?

#1 Post by andrewngn13 » Mon Sep 05, 2016 11:58 pm

When I have a friend read any of the concept ideas for a story I might want to write, they usually concur that there's an interesting premise and plot, and that the setting is well established.

But when I get down to creating the dialogue, it always seems like the conversations feel very much forced. Although I've run the conversations in my head and even spoken them aloud, it doesn't seem like it gets any better. What can I do to improve?

On a side note, is there an easy way to tell when you have a main character doing too much inflective thinking?
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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#2 Post by SundownKid » Tue Sep 06, 2016 3:14 am

The best way I've seen is to read more (good) books, and get an idea for what good dialogue sounds like. Maybe screenplays too. The best way to learn is by looking at it done well, there's no instant way to start writing more natural dialogue.

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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#3 Post by RotGtIE » Tue Sep 06, 2016 3:20 am

Writing dialogue for a story can be tricky because you have two opposing forces pulling against each other. On one hand, you have the plot, which wants to progress and reach the next arc, chapter, or scene. On the other, you have banter and discussion, which wants to mill about accomplishing diddly squat but amusing the listeners all the more for it. When writing, it's difficult not to be conscious of these opposing goals of entertainment in the moment versus plot progression and it's easy to get torn apart by them.

At times like this, it helps me to remind myself that dialogue, like any part of a story, only needs to show the highlights, and not the entirety of what is said between characters in a span of time. You don't have to force yourself to detail every word spoken in every conversation between characters from start to finish just like you don't need to detail every step made in transit from one location to another during the progression of the plot. If you feel that you are forcing out some dialogue that never seems to come out like it's a natural conversation, I suspect the most probable cause is that you are straying from detailing only the highlights that the reader really needs and/or wants to see.

Like with any scene, dialogue has a lot of moving parts and I think it will be difficult to offer more targeted advice without an excerpt to serve as an example of what we're working with. If you have anything you can share, doing so would make it easier for us to help.

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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#4 Post by Kuiper » Tue Sep 06, 2016 8:45 am

I think that dialog functions best when you pay attention to what each of the characters wants, or what they are trying to get out of a certain scene.

For example: Main character is looking for a friend who has gone missing. He stops at a coffee shop and asks the barista if the if she has seen his friend.

Now, we know what the main character is looking for in this scene: he wants to ascertain the whereabouts of her missing friend. Thus, all of his dialog will be focused on getting to that point. He's going to start by asking very specific questions. (He probably won't even bother to introduce himself, and might even skip the friendly "hello" and just start asking questions once he has the barista's attention.) But what about the barista? What motivation guides her dialog? Maybe the barista is looking at the long like of people behind our protagonist, and her motivation is ending the conversation as quickly as possible to keep things moving along. Maybe the barista is having a conversation with someone on her phone, and resents the fact that the protagonist has interrupted that. Or maybe the barista sees the look of worry and concern on our main character's face, and wants to do everything she can to figure out what has him so upset, and help him solve that problem (to the best of her ability).

Each of those motivations makes for very different dialog, and I find that oftentimes, simply framing a conversation in terms of "what does each of these characters want?" will make the process of writing the scene much more straightforward. The conversation doesn't happen because the plot demands it; the conversation happens because one of the characters wants something, which is why they started the conversation in the first place. Sometimes, that reason is simply "I'm bored and want to pass the time while waiting for the bus," or "That person looks unusual, and I'm curious about some aspect of them," or "I'm dealing with some tough stuff at the moment, and I think that maybe articulating all of my inner anxieties to someone else might help me sort through them better." Know their motivations, and you know how they'll talk. Do this for each of the characters participating in the conversation, and you have something that flows

This is why having proactive characters is so important. If you ask the question, "What does each of these characters want?" and the answer is, "Well, nothing, really," then there's not going to be much in that is going to advance our plot or our characters' development.

Incidentally, this is why some "info-dumpy" dialog comes across as so unnatural and stilted. For example, here's an example of really bad dialog:

Teenage boy elf: "How is grandpa doing?"
Teenage girl elf: "Grandpa's been in good health. As you know, he's eighty years old, which is pretty young by elf standards, considering that elves can live to be over 200 years old."

We ask ourselves, "Why are these characters saying these things?" There is no reason for one elf to say to another elf, "As you know, elves can live to be over 200 years old." They're both elves; both of them should already know this basic fact of elf biology. So the answer to "why are these characters saying these things?" is basically, "because the audience needed to know these things," which isn't a narrative justification at all.

Likewise, look at a scene you've written. Ask yourself, "Why are the characters saying these things?" And if you can come up with an answer like, "Well, this character is talking like this because he's mad," or "This character is asking this question because he's trying to get more information," then that's well and good. But if you're coming up with answers like, "Well, this is what gets us to the next scene," or "This conversation is needed to advance the plot," and you're not coming up with any character-based reasons for why the characters would be saying these things (or even having a conversation in the first place), then that may be what is leading to your dialog sounding "forced."
SundownKid wrote:The best way I've seen is to read more (good) books, and get an idea for what good dialogue sounds like. Maybe screenplays too. The best way to learn is by looking at it done well, there's no instant way to start writing more natural dialogue.
While there's certainly validity to this, I think it's important to realize that dialog is a caricature of real speech. Most dialog written in novels isn't really that realistic, but that's okay because it feels realistic. However, you do have this phenomenon where you have a "first generation" of writers who write their dialog as an imitation of speech, and then you have subsequent generations of people who learned how people talk from reading science fiction novels, so what you have is an imitation of an imitation of real speech, which can be quite a different thing.

For a similar phenomenon, you can look at visual art. For example, manga tends to adhere to a very specific aesthetic, and if you look at manga from a historical perspective, the later you go, the more "convergent" it seems to become, as you have generations of kids who were raised on Shounen Jump, and they're imitating that, rather than the world around them. So while early comics and cartoons might have been a caricature of real life, later comics and cartoons are basically a caricature of a caricature. In certain ways, this is good: you could say that the form has become more "refined" over time. However, it can also start to feel "inbred" when you have six comics by six different artists that are artistically very similar; it feels much less creative.

I guess the point I'm trying to get at is that if your guide to "how do people talk" is spending a bunch of time with Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams, you're limiting yourself a lot, and I the best approach is to imitate the technique and approach that you learn from books and seed it with the ideas that come with exposing yourself to real people. I'm a big fan of stealing ideas from reality, and in a lot of cases I base characters and their voices based on people that I've encountered or overheard in real life. Reading novels can teach you about the craft of writing good dialog, but don't rely on books to give you all of your ideas, and don't use dialog in novels as a model for how people actually talk.
andrewngn13 wrote:On a side note, is there an easy way to tell when you have a main character doing too much inflective thinking?
I'm not sure what you mean by this; could you explain? (Maybe give some examples?)
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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#5 Post by indoneko » Tue Sep 06, 2016 12:14 pm

andrewngn13 wrote:But when I get down to creating the dialogue, it always seems like the conversations feel very much forced.
Forced as in it feel out of character? or is it more about the flow of the conversation?

Perhaps it would be much easier for people here to notice what's actually the problem if you could provide us your writing sample.
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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#6 Post by andrewngn13 » Tue Sep 06, 2016 2:06 pm

Wrote up a short random sample here then:
https://recastdev.wordpress.com/2016/09 ... emorandum/

As for the inflection, I guess it would be more accurate to say current thoughts? I've mostly only written in first person, so lot of the times I end up with long thought processes with dialogue nowhere in sight.
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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#7 Post by gamerbum » Tue Sep 06, 2016 2:53 pm

Just a few sentences in, and there are already problems with the dialogue.

“How about when you’re not working on a writing assignment due at the end of class?”

Think about it - how many real people would add in the extra, unnecessary detail of it being a writing assignment? Few, if any. In fact, it doesn't matter what kind of assignment it is, period.

Seriously think on it - why would Ellie have mentioned that it was a writing assignment? It just seems unnatural when the person she's talking to already knows what kind of assignment it is. If that detail is actually important, it should be added into a narration, a thought, or a piece of dialogue where it actually would've been natural to come up. Example: "Damn, I hate English class." Well, then we'd know it was an English assignment and by extension, a writing assignment.

Your unnecessary details come up again - "Well, I wasn’t staring blankly at the ceiling like you were," and, “You don’t have to give me such a doubtful stare you know? It’s just a hop and skip back home.”

Wouldn't a real person be more likely to say things like "Well, I didn't waste my time staring at the ceiling like you did," and, "Don't give me that look." Always, always imagine a real person speaking when you write dialogue. Take into account their age, where they are, and who they're with. You had them speaking like they were poets with those unnecessary details and the odd word choice. Staring blankly at the ceiling? That blatantly sounds like a narration from a novel. A doubtful stare? Again, sounds like a narration from a novel.

All right, I'm not going to comment on the rest individually because it basically all suffers the same problem from that point on: it doesn't sound like stuff real high school (I assume) students would say. The way they talk seems to be a mixture of slang and odd... British? dialect, when they aren't being natural poets. Their own personalities clash from sentence to sentence (poets to slangy teenagers); it's very confusing to the reader and gives the writing a very synthetic feeling.

Like seriously, imagine real people speaking your lines aloud when you write them. Something sounds off? Delete it. Unnatural? Rewrite it. Ignore how people speak on TV shows, in books, and in video games - if you try to mimic them, you're referencing a caricature of reality. Go talk to real people - your family, your friends, even listen to local radio shows. If you can't imagine any of them saying it, don't write it. Even if you can imagine them saying it, if it sounds weird, don't write it. Don't be afraid to rewrite a line as many times as it takes, or even to move on and come back to it later.

Hope that helps.

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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#8 Post by NialGrenville » Tue Sep 06, 2016 4:05 pm

Always an issue when It comes to writing plays. Like gamerbum said, you have to be more down to earth with characters. You may have a real character that understands issues and says "writing assignment." But both characters would not be on the same plain of thought. You don't have much an issue with dialogue, more an issue in character development IN that dialogue. Write a few plays, read a few, repeat. It'll get your dialogue problem right out of the way. But also keep in mind everyone's opinion, banter and conversation are two different things. They are both needed though. It's what makes people real to the player/reader/watcher.
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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#9 Post by Katy133 » Thu Sep 15, 2016 11:11 am

Another way to improve your writing is to learn what doesn't make good/believable dialogue. Since many brilliant writers break the rules of what you "should" do as a writer, it may be more helpful to learn what you should avoid.

The writer's guidebook, How NOT to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (which can be borrowed from public libraries) has a whole section devoted to writing dialogue.

You can also watch The Room directed by (and starring) Tommy Wiseau. The film has been described as "the Citizen Kane of bad movies" (meaning that film-writers study the film, not to learn why it's so good, but why it's so bad, it ends up being fascinating to watch). Critics have commented on how the film seems to have flaws in every aspect of filmmaking (including the dialogue's writing). If you can't find the film at a library, then you may want to study it through video reviews/analyses on the internet.
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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#10 Post by NialGrenville » Thu Sep 15, 2016 11:40 am

Katy133 wrote:Another way to improve your writing is to learn what doesn't make good/believable dialogue. Since many brilliant writers break the rules of what you "should" do as a writer, it may be more helpful to learn what you should avoid.

The writer's guidebook, How NOT to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman (which can be borrowed from public libraries) has a whole section devoted to writing dialogue.

You can also watch The Room directed by (and starring) Tommy Wiseau. The film has been described as "the Citizen Kane of bad movies" (meaning that film-writers study the film, not to learn why it's so good, but why it's so bad, it ends up being fascinating to watch). Critics have commented on how the film seems to have flaws in every aspect of filmmaking (including the dialogue's writing). If you can't find the film at a library, then you may want to study it through video reviews/analyses on the internet.
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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#11 Post by LeonDaydreamer » Tue Sep 20, 2016 3:13 pm

Like others have mentioned on here, it really helps looking at other work to see how their dialogue is structured. Especially with dialogue sometimes it's good to picture scenes more like if they were in a film, and ask yourself how you would feel watching this exchange on screen. Does it feel natural or forced, organic or contrived? If it's the latter in either case, there's no problem. You can rebuild it, you have the technology, just go back and edit until it feels right. Either something is missing or there is too much filler and you went offtrack.

Some important things to keep in mind are:
  • What needs are the characters having satisfied with this conversation?
    Are they curious about something? Do they want to explore some philosophical concept with a friend or adversary to get their point of view on it? Do they have to get something off their chest? Do they have zero patience for this person getting in their way? Are they discussing something for their benefit or the reader's benefit (classic mistake)? They should always be internally motivated for one reason or another.
  • What frame of mind are the characters in?
    Are they honest, and if so, do they trust the person they're with? Are they desperate? Do they even have time for this conversation? Part of the flow of dialogue could be about one character trying to calm the other one down while getting the details out of them about why they are so upset. If you add these elements to your dialogue, it will make the conversation more interesting to read.
Like RotGtIE mentioned, there are always a lot of dynamics in a conversation, and if it feels flat it's often because you're not taking the time to step into these characters' shoes and think about what it would feel like in this given moment speaking to this person about this subject. Maybe one of the characters is so anxious about something, they direct the flow of the conversation someplace completely different.
andrewngn13 wrote:On a side note, is there an easy way to tell when you have a main character doing too much inflective thinking?
The answer to this is in the answer to this question: Is it boring?
Are the thoughts/observations interesting or humorous? I tend to think of my writing cinematically, and I would ask myself: If this were in a film, would it be interesting to watch?
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Re: Writing better dialogue?

#12 Post by hoihoisoi » Wed Sep 21, 2016 9:10 am

I think to write better dialogue is to imagine how you would say it then tailor it to how your character would say it given the kind of personality or character traits they have.

Code: Select all

“Are you sure, sure about this?”
Is something I believe few people would say in daily conversation. It's alright to go with just:

Code: Select all

"You really sure about this?" or "Are you sure about this?" or "You sure?"
It flows better more because it's simple and that's how regular conversation usually goes. (Unless you have a really eccentric character in the group of friends - in that case, using odd word choices and phrasing can split him apart from the bunch. But you can't have too many of those kinds of characters so maybe one or two in a story is enough.) So try to create dialogue which you know you would say in real life and you should be fine for the most part.

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If you have certain scenes you want the reader to see, you could always write it down from a third perspective before giving the dialogue. Don't use dialogue to convey a scene.

Code: Select all

“Are you sure, sure about this?”
“You don’t have to give me such a doubtful stare you know? It’s just a hop and skip back home.”
Is a line in which I also do not think many people would say. You could actually write it out as:

Code: Select all

“Are you sure about this?” She frowned, giving me a doubtful stare with her icy cold gaze.
"I'll be fine. It's just a short walk back home afterall." I retorted back. 
Try to convey a scene from a third perspective and add the corresponding dialogue. It makes it easier to get a scene churned out rather than using dialogue as a scene creator.

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That's roughly two things to note of I guess. Hope it helped you. Good luck with your writing! :)
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