Writing Exercises: "Writing Dialog"

For many, this particular aspect of craft is difficult to write. Usually, the writers who find dialog challenging tend to be much stronger at writing narrative and vise-versa for the writers who excel at dialog. Personally I am more confident in dialog than narrative, which is especially why I am excited to tackle this topic today.

Before I get carried away with my pretentious writing ways, I will begin with the basics I learned from best. Those basics begin with a very simple question every writer should ask:

Why write dialog? It seems like a silly question but it is important to understand the purpose behind dialog and why it is an art form. This question comes with a list of answers so let's go ahead tackle them:

1) Dialog forward's the plot

Duh. Again though, we're starting with the basics. Dialog forwards the plot in the simplest ways: your characters discuss what they experience with one another and ultimately communicate to the reader what they plan to do as a result. Let's use an example:

In Tolkien' The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, (you see this same dialog via the movie if you did not brave the books) Frodo says to Gandalf after hearing Gollum's tragic tale: "I wish the ring had never come to me, I wish none of this had happened."

Based upon what we've read (or seen) of the story unfolding, we could have pretty much guessed Frodo wished this, however the plot advances with one of our protagonists admitting their fears, raising the stakes of the situation and ultimately making way for Gandalf's iconic response: "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."

Now, with this conversation of dialog, we see a necessary admittance of fear, followed by an inspirational statement that ultimately impacts Frodo to gather courage to continue the journey. Again duh, but the point here is the plot is now advanced because we have received a reason for the journey to even continue in the first place, despite circumstances that would cause many people to abandon such a terrifying task.

2) Dialog Reveal's something about the character

Now, the previous example given could fall under this category but I'll use another one anyway. Before we go into it though, let's keep things simple first. Just as the title says: dialog reveals something about the character, whether that is personality, something they are trying to hide or a quirk. Dialog is an effective give-away to what your character tries to keep to themselves.

I'll stick to popular examples for the sake of keeping this simple since I'm going to enter the realm of monologuing. Monologuing occurs in first person. Think of monologuing as the dialog between a first person narrator and an audience.

In Collins' book Mockingjay (third book of the Hunger Games series), Katniss' monologuing throughout the series already does much to reveal Katniss' character to the audience. Interestingly, the audience throughout this book series has a much better understanding of Katniss' character than the cast of characters present in the books do. Take the following quote from Mockingjay for example: "All those months of taking it for granted that Peeta thought I was wonderful are over. Finally, he can see me for who I really am. Violent. Distrustful. Manipulative. Deadly. And I hate him for it."

There are two things happening here. The first: Katniss is reflecting upon another character's perception of her changing in a somewhat dramatic way. What we learn here is that Katniss is affirming that these traits Peeta are assigning to her are true even though (for those who have read the books or seen the movies) that Katniss is not actually any of these things.

The second thing that is happening here: at the end of this monologue, Katniss also reveals that she "hates" Peeta for assigning these less than admirable traits to her character. Although contradictory, a lot is being said here. The most important thing to take away (for the sake of this example) is that we learn that Katniss resents Peeta for sharing an opinion she has of herself.

3) Dialog helps distinguish the characters from one another

The last thing you want to do is have every single one of your characters sound exactly the same. That's boring and keeping you from developing craft. Now this is not to say that you have to force accents on characters but its definitely worth playing with different speech patterns. Although I say this, the example I have lined up utilizes a character with an extreme accent for the sake of demonstrating how much fun accents can be!

In Rowling's book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Harry misses his ride to Hogwarts but manages to catch a ride on the Knight's Bus where other passengers chatter about the mysterious Sirius Black. One of the passenger's dialog drips with a thick English accent, clearly defined in comparison to Harry's speech patterns.

"--All You-Knows-'OO's' supporters was tracked down, wasn't they, Ern? Most of 'em knew it was all over, wiv You-Know-'Oo gone, and they came quiet. But not Sirius Black. I 'eard he thought 'e'd be second-in-command once You-Know-'Oo 'ad taken over."

I'm sure I don't have to quote Harry for you to appreciate the difference in dialog. Getting familiar with speech patterns and how to utilize dialog to make each of your characters unique is key to having a very rich cast of characters.

4) Dialog also reveals other needed information about the story or a character's past

I've got a great example for this one, and another popular one too. Before we go into it, here's the last listed purpose dialog has that we'll discuss in this post: characters can also reveal information you simply don't have time to reveal in the present narrative through dialog. In Martin's book Game of Thrones (the first book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series) is littered with constant references to the war Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon were involved in years before the start of the events that take place in the first book. If you've watched the show, you'll be very aware of this, too. Take this quote for example:

"We were meant to rule together. If your sister had lived, we would have been bound by blood." Robert Baratheon says this about Ned Stark's sister while observing her tomb. At the time you reach this scene in the book (and show), it has been revealed that Ned and Robert are old friends who fought alongside each other in a war.

With this line of dialog we learn that obviously this relationship runs deeper as we are referencing Ned's sister who clearly is no longer living and can assume her death is tied to the aforementioned war. If you're reading the books or watching the show, you know what follows. Regardless of this, the dialog is subtle but very helpful in adding context behind the characters of Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon.

The toolbox that comes with dialog is vast and very necessary to the success of your story so play and practice as needed. This topic I will pick up next week so we may further explore the endless possibilities of this necessary tool.

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