tagHow To"Tips on Writing Dialog," Said Smokey!

"Tips on Writing Dialog," Said Smokey!

bySmokey125©

Good Day! I Began Writing This Essay—

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018, 6:31 p.m.

"Well, it means being able to find and arrange just the most effective words to communicate your feelings and explain things." —Dr. Deborah Morelli ("Lying Young" part 1)

Top of the morning to you! Or, bottom of the evening to you! Or, whenever you happen to be reading. Of the lot of you Readers who are so beloved and treasured to me (yes, buttering you up early; get used to it), one particular individual and fellow author asked me about penning realistic dialogue. A few days before—shameless Smokey plug number one—"Rerouted" had come out, an especially dialogue-heavy story. It was a piece in which the ability to write strong (and erotic) dialogue especially shines. When you're writing fiction, two disparate animals on your ark are the narrative as a whole, and all of the witty little words framed inside those quotation marks and inverted commas. This essay is to share things I've learned about writing dialogue along my way. I'm by no means any more an "expert" than the next yarnwright; I'm merely divulging some of my personal input.

Fundamentally, fiction—literary or otherwise, erotic or otherwise—is a form of entertainment. And while nonfiction can do the same, its entertainment factor is more intransitive. Writing nonfiction is the relation of events that have occurred in real life. And as such, it includes also the citing of speech from real people. Scribing dialogue is not an ingredient in nonfiction, but substituted by quoting the words of others, and crediting them bibliographically. This isn't to say that writing fiction is more challenging than nonfiction, but it involves one unique feat: making your characters come alive through the conversations they conduct.

Tense does not play a part in effective dialogue, but person can. Standard 3rd-person bears the most distant relationship between dialogue and narrative. 3rd-person narrative is conventionally most flowery and "formal." 2nd-person reflects interaction; you're addressing an unseen entity, and dialogue will tend to be less prevalent. At the same time, 2nd-person narrative will come across a trifle looser, more personable. In this setting, you'll want your wordage to be "accessible," to both your 2nd-person subject and your Readers (and yes, I always capitalize Readers. You all have Names; you deserve the common courtesy of the power of the Shift key that is used for good and not evil). While 2nd-person connects to a created character, its narrative, in a way, is dialogue. Then of course we've got 1st-person, an essential monologue doubling as narrative around your characters' lines. Whether your 1st-person protagonist is similar to you as the author or not, you'll clearly want her or him to be relatable. In any person, if your Readers don't know what you're talking about, or find the character incredible based on her/his speech, they're going to have a hard time relating. Thus, their enjoyment of the story likely diminishes. They may tire of it, and/or abandon without finishing. This want we not.

Sometimes—shameless plugs two, three, four and five—depending on the nature, a story requires little dialogue. My 1st-person piece "The Voxe: A Girl And Her Music" comes to mind. Others—"Rerouted," "Friends And Live-Ins," or even "Lying Young" or "Imperfect Strangers"—rely substantially on conversation, to both familiarize Readers with your characters, and to move things along at a steady, entertaining pace. You've got your storyline, arc and so forth mapped out. A character has risen from the depths of imagination, springing to life on the page. You're ready to cull the courageous first words from your character's trembling fledgling lips. So how to proceed that daunting first time you hold Shift and strike the quotation mark key?

*****

"... how do I know that, Bonnie? ... you told me you wanted to be an actress. Have you just been playing some kinda...character with me?? ... what do I even know about you?" —Laura McCollum ("Imperfect Strangers")

Know your characters. Every writer has his or her own process. It may help you to write a biography of each character you whip up, major or minor. Or make a list of said characters' traits. Not to share, but to keep and refer to for your own use. One story with a few characters will be simple to keep track of. The further your literary journey takes you, the more characters will blur. After enough new and different characters bloom from the same mind, inevitably, personalities will overlap. Keeping character distinctions in mind will help you shape the unique ways they speak. If you've characters who think, act and live similarly, they'll therefore speak similarly. The most astute and diligent of Readers will take note. Whether the Reader takes this as a positive or negative is an individual poll. Nonetheless, exploring distinction in characters will help you break new ground and cover more territory. You're creating figures that will, to varying degrees, reflect the colorful particles of society. Not just one hue or shade.

Every character, once developed, will have his or her own identity. How far each will go through development is up to you as the author and creator. It's important to develop them to the idiosyncratic level of at least an adult, since all of our major characters involved in a sexual act must be 18 years old. Now that you've got a character ready to grace the page (or screen), ask and answer some identifying questions. For example—perhaps including, but certainly not limited to—how does your character think? How does s/he live, dress, eat, look at the world? Does s/he have any outstanding physical or mental traits? Is s/he introverted or extroverted? How far has s/he come out of her/his social shell? What sort of lifestyle does s/he embrace? What are her/his beliefs? To what philosophies does s/he subscribe? Does s/he swear? How highly is s/he educated? And for purposes of our erotic craft: does s/he have a fetish? What turns her/him on? What kinks does s/he enjoy? How passionately does s/he masturbate or make love? Once your character's developed, you may dig up other applicable queries.

Knowing the type of person a character is will play a part in dictating how she or he speaks. Every human being is different. It goes without saying and ironically also bears repeating: every, human being, is different. And yet, you'll want them to talk, like, normal, people. Yes, that's subjective as hell. So much so that typing the words "talk like normal people" pained me just a bit. But once again, an accessible, relatable character will help further a story. It is advisable to write a character particularly flowery or sophisticated language—i.e., speech with a lot of "big"/advanced words—if congruent with that character's persona. Or when deliberately incongruent, as in the case of satire. Or, when a stretch of realism is desired, for entertainment or comic purposes. Here's an example, from my humorous effort "Give Me A Little Credit Here," with a joke pay-off delivered by the companion character.

"... I wanna go to slee-e-e-eep!"

Valerie came back with the teacups a matter-of-fact moment later.

"You're just going through a state of temporal somnolence due to your circadian rhythm, combined with your somewhat lethargic physiology, which would naturally result in a microsleep condition in your cerebral cortex. Not to mention your pathological adversity to delayed gratification." ... Donna stared at her.

"Great; now I'm tired, and I have a headache."

While Valerie O'Hanlon—the character belonging to this little monologue—is a reasonably intelligent young woman, she is not quite the sort of scientific genius to whip up such a beatless diagnosis of logic on the spot, as she does here. This is the magic of fiction. The temporary suspension of disbelief to accommodate exaggeration. (And, as a side note, the ability to recognize the imbalanced ratio of syllables to words, as in the previous sentence. (Even though that sentence was technically a fragment.) Unless you wish to induce Donna's aforementioned headache, 22 is far too many syllables for eight words.) We're all entitled to a fancy flight of fancy now and then. I find these fun, and yes, to an extent, a way of showing off. I believe showing off is okay, provided condescension is not involved, but fun is. Where you'll encounter a bit more of this prolific prose is via characters who are overly flamboyant (and/or pompous). Think...Frasier Crane, for example. Or...Sheldon Cooper, more recently.

*****

"Well, I notice you punctuated those statements with periods, not exclamation points, so it can't hurt quite that much." —Sandra Burton ("How To Tickle A Girl Insane")

Don't worry about punctuation. I like punctuation. I do. I'm especially fond of em dashes—particularly...and ellipses. I'll readily admit it: I...shamelessly...abuse...the ellipsis. Read...my...stuff. No, really...do it. You'll find more ellipses than you can count. Most of them are in my characters' dialogue. 'Tis my friendly advice to be unafraid to abuse the ellipses. They can take it; they're tough little dots. That's why they band together.

But on the whole, friends, don't sweat punctuation in your dialogue. Punctuation is (usually) more a device for cosmetically touching up and decorating your narrative; making it..."pretty." With the exception of those three little strung-together dots, I use my punctuation in dialogue just the same as in the narrative. The reason I use so many ellipses in speech is rather a personal one. I...often...need a little time to put just the right words together that I want, and in the proper order as well. So as a logical extension, a lot of my characters possess that trait. Also, this is the erotica community. We're writing about sex here. And often also romance, love and relationships. We take our time having real-life conversations in these areas. Some of us get emotional, downright weepy. And take a lot of meaningful pauses between words. It's a logical distinction to me to write these lines as they would be said in a real-life setting, by real people, in real situations.

Ellipses represent those pauses we take when we need those spare seconds to come up with our next words. It's the same reason I keep all the "uh"s, "erm"s, "eh"s, "um"s. And the reason when in dialogue, I write "gonna," "wanna" and "gotta," instead of "going to," "want to," "got to." The appropriate syntax is reserved for the narrative. In dialogue, we want to connect. Excuse me; we wanna connect. Real people. Real speech. Real Americans, I should amend. I'm American, as are most of my characters. That's our casual, somewhat even crude speech. Because for all intent and purpose, as far as your Readers want to be concerned, that's what these characters are. They're them. The man on the street, the girl next door. Your favorite schoolteacher, the kindly shopkeeper, even the creepy wicked old neighbor way down the end of the block. Once again, relatability. Accessibility. Which brings me to my next tip...

*****

"What you did was way wronger—or, oh, oh, excuse me, Sergeant Grammar—way more wrong." —Dale Sunderland ("Who's Teaching Whom?")

Grammar is not something from the metric system. Remember when I mentioned the pompous blowhard-ish sitcom character Frasier Crane above? Well, the actor who played him is called (Kelsey) Grammer, with an 'e.' Not to be confused with the facet of the English language that infuriates its speakers more intensely than any other. While proper grammar is important on the narrative side of things, for the dialogue, let's return to our "keep it real" philosophy. Slip yourself into the Reader's proverbial shoes, and bear in mind that: most non-writers play fast and loose with the rules of grammar in their casual speech. And even as authors, do let's be honest. Decent grammar's important, but the butchering thereof won't singlehandedly destabilize the entire structure of Homo sapien communication. Typical casual-speak is congruent with efficient conversation on sex, love, romance, and the like. When laboring to assert one's feelings in these areas, only the most pedantic will take care to ensure perfect grammar. And we can't really fault them for it; they're pedants, after all. It's what they do.

Being a proponent of grand grammar, I adhere to its rules in my narrative. I too understand, however, how few share this penchant. Which is why my dialogue grammar is looser. A character of mine is far more likely to say "me and my friends" (rather than "my friends and I"), for instance. And truthfully, I think that's fine. See previous paragraph. This goes back to knowing your characters and determining which are sticklers and which aren't. Upon thorough analysis of who your character is and how s/he operates, puzzle pieces like this will start naturally falling into place. One of the goals is to mirror the patterns and quirks of common everyday yackety-yak. Here's another tactic I use only in dialogue, to make it read more real. What with our habit of running words together in sentences, I'll semi-often contract any words. Not just pronouns or helping verbs. Here's an example of that, most recently, from "Rerouted," involving the plural noun "dreams" and a conjugation of "to be"—

"Y'know, they tell us when we're young that we can do anything, be whatever we want, our dreams're real, sky's the limit, blah blah. Then you grow up and find out for yourself the hard way."

A fitting example, as that quote also has a contraction of "you know" at the beginning. By this token, one could say I harshly abuse the apostrophe as well. That's fair. But as speakers of the English language, this is how we say things. We can't even help it; it's the way we're brought up, listening to—and thus learning—common, casual speech. I feel it important to note, however, this is a technique I use because it makes the flow more genuine for me. If your technique is to spare the apostrophes and type the contractions out, great. Readers, for the most part, won't be perturbed on this issue one way or the other.

And another thing, folks: this ain't no classroom! Remember what Burger King said a few decades ago: sometimes you've gotta break the rules. In the narrative or the dialogue. Unless you have a character who's an English teacher, like in my above-quoted story "Who's Teaching Whom?"...go ahead and end your sentences with prepositions. Throw a few "ain't"s in there. Do whatever you like to make it feel realer for you. To make it easier to read, for both you and your audience. And more fun! Some Readers like to read stories out loud, to themselves or someone else. Some even like to affect the different characters with contrasting voices. I read my stories out loud, pre-submission, as a proofreading measure. This makes it easier to find notes and changes as I go along. It also helps me more easily recognize whether a sentence flows well, or runs on too long. Which leads to...

*****

"... you've already served a pretty impressive sentence in my little prison here. And somehow, I have a feeling you won't be doing anything like that again." —Miss Farrah ("Beyond Hell And Back III")

Don't bite off more than you can chew! Don't get me wrong, either; you should feel a little freer to run with sentence structure in your dialogue. After all, it breaks up the more rigid etiquette of the narrative. Returning to an earlier point, if it serves the effort of humor, character or plot, by all means, kick in a long-ass run-on sentence now and then! Do everyone including yourself a favor, though, and add well-placed pacing punctuation. Obviously, you're an author; you know what you're doing with your periods/full stops. (And if you don't, step away from this essay immediately, obtain a time travel machine and return to elementary school.) Otherwise, for heaven's sake, toss a few commas in there—if for no other reason, to spare the Reader the chore of going back over the sentence to analyze how it should be read. If applicable, drop in a nice colon or semi-colon. Let the Reader know where s/he will want to take a little caesura. And if one form of punctuation is being overused, mix it up a little. Parentheses (brackets) and dashes are often interchangeable. Commas can happily mingle with ellipses. I'm not personally a fan of the asterisk in a body of text, but if they gel with you, use them for emphasis. I also don't care for ampersands replacing "and" in standard text, but again, that's just me!

Another thing I'll find myself doing often in dialogue is highlighting emphasis, with italics. That is of course a formatting choice. Italics work best for me. I reserve boldface for my segment headings. Or if some other special circumstances is being applied to the story. And I don't really underline anything. You might use italics, bold or underline for your emphasis—whatever your preference—even a combination thereof, if your character is really adamant in what s/he's saying. Formatting can be useful also to break up the homogenous appearance of a sentence, and let the Reader know something emphatic is coming up. Of course, the same can be accomplished with exclamation points or interrobangs (question marks clustered with exclamation points). Especially in dialogue, my general rule with e.p.s and q.m.s is that two is the limit. That stringing together more than two e.p.s or q.m.s to conclude a sentence is overkill. And vis-à-vis incredulous questions, my interrobang is always?!, never!?.!? does not make sense to me.

Question marks of course have their place, but I feel you can never have too many exclamation points. I'm not saying you need them, I'm saying you should feel free to use as many as you want. Hey, characters in your stories can get excited! Don't squelch their enthusiasm!! Don't end absolutely everything with an exclamation point, but I say be as otherwise liberal as you like. Hell's bells, friends, it's not like they're in short supply. You'll not want the Reader to feel s/he's being screamed at, and for that reason you may not want to get too trigger happy on that Caps key. I prefer the italics to caps anyway, and most folks associate all-caps with being shouted at. Hey, if that's what you're going for, have at it. Especially in your dialogue. That's why I say use as many exclamation points as you want. It'll help your characters get their emotions out, and if your Readers see themselves in these characters, this in turn can help the Reader get similar feelings off his/her chest. So be emotive! Be passionate! Be expressive! And, speaking of which...

*****

"I am not apologetic about my expressions." —Rachel Greentree* ("Happy Endings IV" *Yes, Rachel is another character from the "Hell And Back" series, but she pops up in one scene of "Happy Endings" installment four as well. One of my infamous character crossovers.)

Toy around and be playful with some common expressions. This is a device that can really breathe a bit of fresh, fun life into a story. And it works far better in dialogue than in narrative. This is probably the most colorful piece of advice I can offer, and will add a dash of uniqueness to your characters. There are lots of common, everyday figures of speech we've heard all our lives, and putting a clever twist or tweak on them can nicely spice up a spoken sentence. Just how much you can stretch expressions like rubber before they sever is a judgment call you'll have to make as an author. And this is a tip that very much demands examples to fully illustrate. So I've dug some up from some more of my stories. Observe and enjoy.

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