There is going to be several posts on this topic. Because I have a lot to say on the matter of dialogue. The first, and most difficult, step to improving your dialogue is identifying the problem though, so we’re gonna start from there.
A lot of times you read a line of dialogue and it just feels off, but you can’t quite put your finger on why that is. Well, lets look into that for a moment.
Now, I love writing dialogue. I love writing dialogue based humor. I love finding just the right line for a certain character. I have pages upon pages of random lines that pop in my head and I think sound like something one of my guys would say. It’s one of my greatest joys in writing. Especially in SOF, because I am a lot less concerned with whether I’m using too many ‘witty one liners’ if a character sounds too cheesy or if there’s some innuendo I’m missing (I tend to do that a lot apparently). I can just go with whatever I feel like and have fun.
With that said, my dialogue five years ago; in SOE, was fucking awful. Reading back to it is a cringe-worthy experience to me. It wasn’t ‘Batman & Robin’ levels of bad, but possibly ‘Attack of The Clones’ levels of bad. It was a ‘these people don’t exactly sound human’ kind of bad.
Okay, maybe not THAT bad, but it was bad.
Obviously, if your dialogue is feeling off and artificial, I can’t quite know for sure why. I’m not going to say that it’s because of these particular factors for sure. However I am going to point out some stuff I did wrong back in the day and maybe your issues are similar. If that’s the case then yes; it will help you get better because you’ll be able to identify these thing in your writing.
So, just to give an example of a bad line, a small one:
“No, of course not. I will do as you say. Where is father by the way?”
This is supposed to be Crys talking to Dani; her mother, and asking he where her father is.
It’s a crap bit of dialogue. It doesn’t sound at all natural.
Crys doesn’t talk that way. Not anymore. She wouldn’t be that formal addressing her own mother, because that’s fucking stupid and who would do that?
Well…. *points at herself* That’s who. I did that.
In fact one of my deepest regrets when it comes to the Shadows series was conveying next to ZERO emotion between Crys and her mother, seeing as she died before SOP started and all of Crys’ hurt over her death seems just a bit more shallow than it should because of that. They weren’t all warmth and fluff with one another, and they butted heads constantly, but Dani and Crys were in fact very close and they did in fact love each other very much. It was my job to get that across in their interactions and I failed because I was such a noob at the time.
This is a flashback between them written during SOP:
“What are you doing here, kiddo? Trying to freeze to death?” She asked, sitting next to Crys and putting one arm around her shoulders.
Crys stopped playing and frowned slightly. “Are you sick or something?”
“…Why do you say that?” Dani asked, confused.
“You never call me ‘kiddo’. Dad used to call me that.” Crys said casually. “Don’t even get me started on the hugging.”
“I’m hugging you because you’re shivering, you little weirdo.” Dani laughed. “And, well… Your father was always better at being comforting. I always found it easier to just ground you.”
Can you note the difference in tone? That’s a bit more casual and a bit more personal compared to the above example.
So at the point when I was writing SOP and looking back at my mechanical dialogue in SOE I’d wonder what went wrong. I’m a human being, I have a mother, I should know how to write someone talking to their parent. Why did I fail so hard at that?
For starters I was very self-conscious during SOE. I was very worried about running a Roleplay for the first time and I know that affected a lot of my writing. Being afraid to suck is the fastest to accomplish just that. That’s a lesson I learned observing myself over the past years. The more comfortable I became writing with my group the better my writing became in itself.
Rereading things I eventually figured that my biggest mistakes were not making enough use of contractions, not making lines as simple as they could have been, and having characters act too formal with people they were supposed to be close to. As the example with Crys and her mother. Once I was able to identify those issues I could start to really see them as I was writing. Twelve year olds won’t say things like “do not” or use words like ‘shall’, people won’t go out of their way to use a lot more words than they actually need to when chatting with a friend.
Above all I found that there are two little rules I can follow to avoid incredibly awkward lines of dialogue like the ones I used to write:
1) Say it out loud.
Try to read the lines the same way you imagine your character saying them, and if it sounds wrong coming out of your mouth then you likely have a problem.
2) If it sounds wrong, change it. Even if you can’t figure out why.
Maybe it’s the punctuation, maybe it’s something in your particular choice of words, maybe…
It doesn’t exactly matter. If it feels wrong it likely is, so go with your gut and change it.
TO BE CONTINUED…