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Speech Bubbles

For me, one of the trickiest parts of writing is dealing with dialogue.  It’s not that I haven’t read the standard dialogue tips.  I have.  I know that you’re supposed to use “said” almost all the time, rather than “exclaimed” (despite my high school English textbook, which told me to vary my dialogue tags).  I also know that you need to be careful not to go over the top with dialects.  I know that it’s best to find ways to skip over the formalities, “Hello” and “How are you,” and cut to the important parts of the conversation.  And I know that, if you can, you really should be paying attention to how different people talk in real life, so you can give all your characters their own expressions and they’ll read like different people.

But when it comes to figuring out what my characters are actually going to say, I start running into trouble.  I don’t really enjoy writing what I know, since I prefer writing about things that aren’t even possible, but the downside of this is that, when my characters run into situations that would never happen to me, I have to figure out by myself what would be the most realistic thing for them to do or say to each other, and that’s not easy.

Also, the trouble with dialogue in general is that it’s so easy to use it to convey more than it should.  Ever since third person omniscient narration has gone out of style, writers feel the need to stick to one character’s head at a time, but also to hint at the other characters’ motivations for what they’re doing, so the story continues to make sense.  But you can’t expect all these motivations to show up in the dialogue, because in real life, people seldom say everything they think, especially when they’re in the middle of a power struggle, and good fiction is all about power struggles.

Also, if your characters are true to life, then almost every scene will have undercurrents which all the characters are aware of, but which don’t show up in the dialogue. Two characters can have the exact same conversation, word for word, but depending on the their underlying relationship and the tone of voice they use, the meaning could be entirely different.  The actual dialogue between the characters is only important as it relates to what they’re really feeling inside.  And what they’re actually feeling inside isn’t something they’re going to talk about in most cases, even to themselves.  It’s something you have to figure out based on context.

This is why some people say that you should never begin a story with dialogue.  It’s not because there’s something about hearing your characters speak that turns people off; it’s just that most of the time the kind of things that people actually say to each other just aren’t opening sentence material.  If the characters are worried about their friend Jimmy who’s out at see in an open boat in the middle of a storm and have a conversation in which they decide to take another boat out and rescue him, they may or may not actually say anything profound during that conversation.   It may just be a discussion of the weather, and then, “Should we take a boat out?” with the risk they’re taking for their friend being something understood but not spoken.  But if you’re opening sentence is, “Should we take a boat out?” or, “The wind is picking up,” it usually just becomes wasted words, because at the time we read it we can’t understand it for what it really means to the characters.  But on the other hand, if you start of with someone saying what’s really going on, like, “Jimmy could die out there.  Now are we going to try to save him, or not?” it can sound a bit theatrical.

So, I’m finding that the more I write, the more I need to rely on other things besides dialogue to get my points across.  Dialogue has a place, but unless the main goal of your character is to improve his speaking skills or to persuade somebody to do something, it’s not the most important thing going on.  What’s important is the goals your characters have and the decisions they’re all making every moment as they try to figure out what will bring them to those goals faster.  Those decisions are sometimes reflected in the dialogue, or influenced by what characters hear each other say, but the dialogue is only a tool, not an end in itself.

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