As my visit to DragonCon and my attendance to Viable Paradise looms on the horizon, I felt that it might be prudent to examine what my struggles are with the craft of writing. Doing so helps me to identify, in black and white, exactly why I struggle with certain elements of story crafting. The intent of this series is to perform a set of honest assessments of my own abilities to date and open the comments for discussion on how a writer (not just me) can improve their grasp of each element.
My biggest weakness, in my own opinion, has always been dialogue. The only thing that I can identify is that I sometimes try too hard–I want my characters to run the whole gamut of human emotion. I want wit, cruelty, mirth, joy, sadness, anger, and rage, but I find that when I’m carried away with the scene that sometimes this feels forced. The words themselves might make a great comeback, or it might be a great rant, or a meaningful condemnation. Making these things fit into the greater piece, or handling the transitioning and the flow from one character or another sometimes leaves me with a feeling of incompleteness. In other words, it’s important to carefully craft the phrasing that a character uses. There are many ways to convey the same idea, but only one or two will really fit the situation and the character.
I’ve tried several exercises to rectify this. One of them is that when I travel, I try to eavesdrop on conversations around me. I’m interested not necessarily in what people have to say, but how they say it. My love of English for the sake of English leads me to be a bit pedantic at times. I have to watch that tendency, and endeavor to understand that not only is the content important, but also the way in which the idea is delivered. Try these examples, as told from the point of view of a college Freshman describing a girl to his friends:
1. “She had the pale beauty of a perfectly formed pink rose. Her satiny complexion and piercing green eyes were instantly mesmerizing.”
2. “She was totally hot, dude. Those eyes! Wow…I’d do her.”
If my character is a college freshman, which dialogue choice is more appropriate? There’s no doubt that one shows slightly greater “skill” with wordsmithing than the other, but is there really any comparison? I must confess that I have to fight this tendency toward florid phrasing as much possible.
That brings me to the next point, which is making the dialogue appropriate to the speaker. You can’t simply write words on a page and put them in a character’s mouth. You have to know something about the character, what their motivations are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going. At times, the reader has nothing on which to base their impressions of your characters other than what they say. Is a character educated? Were they raised on a farm? On a space station? Their vocabulary should reflect their background as well as their outlook on life. You’re painting a picture with that character’s dialogue. Make sure it’s the picture you want the reader to see. For example, a beggar boy is never going to use the words “ambivalent” or “enraged.” If you are trying to convey those ideas, the character might say “I’m uncertain!” or “I’m mad.”
One of the biggest temptations I have as a writer is to show off of my huge vocabulary and make people think I’m smart. The sad truth is that people don’t care how smart I am; they care only if I can deliver an entertaining story. I do that by making sure that my dialogue choice is consistent with characterization. The last thing that I do when I’m editing dialogue is to go back and examine every multi-syllable word and see if it really fits. Winston Churchill was a great orator because he used words with punch. For example, he wouldn’t say “stubborn,” he would say “pig-headed.”
- Dialogue can be phrased many ways, but only a few phrasings will truly fit the situation.
- Content is as important as the idea.
- Words should be appropriate to the speaker (consider background, motivation, etc.)
- Eliminate unnecessary polysyllabics. Phrase things with as much emotional punch as possible.
- Never show off in dialogue. Remain true to character.