Thursday Writing Prompt No. 20

Eh, what can I say? Last week I didn’t post any writing prompts because Thanksgiving kind of got in the way. No excuse, really, I could have written the post earlier and just queued it to publish. But I was kind of busy doing holiday meal shopping. Today I’m still pretty wiped out from the 10K Tuesday challenge for NaNoWriMo, which I did manage to pull off at around 11:30 in the evening. And yesterday was the last official day of NaNo, so I kept on writing — this time, a mere 3,200 or so words.

Based on my experience with my own recalcitrant characters, I’d like to challenge you today to write some dialogue. Make up two characters and put them in any situation that you want.I wrote a scene last night where my main character was on a sailing ship. He knows nothing about ships or the sea; he’s just a passenger. I put him into a conversation with a sailor who was telling him sea monster stories. If you like, use that situation for your exercise. Write about twenty lines of dialogue, enough to get them into a real story.

Now get them talking. Some writing guides tell you just to make the people sound normal, but what exactly is that? Think about their choice of words first. Notice how I used “recalcitrant” in the first sentence of this paragraph? It looks great in writing and it has a very specific meaning. But if I were talking to someone I’d probably just use the word “stubborn.”

So the first thing is to give your characters the correct words to use as building blocks. What’s great about this is that you can help personalize the characters according to what sets of words you let them use. Maybe “Mike” is an average guy, and he gets words like “stubborn” and “hungry.” Another character, who maybe has an advanced degree or just likes to make himself look smart, gets words like “recalcitrant” and “famished.” I’m not saying anything here about people in real life, so chill. This isn’t an IQ test.

Another thing about real dialogue is that people hesitate when they speak. In addition to changes in the tone of voice, the small silences often say more than our words. So how do you put that into writing? One trick is to insert phonemes like “um” and “ah” into the dialogue, but that gets really old really fast. No one like to read it. It sounds great in a conversation, but it’s boring as hell to read. Really. Use it sparingly, and make sure that it adds to the dialogue. If it’s just filler, get rid of it.

Sentence length is next on the list. People don’t speak for three pages’ worth of dialogue at a time. Okay, maybe politicians do. The rest of us pause to take a sip of coffee or eat another caramel. Likewise, don’t have your characters prattling on and on. Give them a rest. Readers will thank you for it, and it will be much easier to follow the dialogue.

Finally, consider the use of tags. This is when you add “she said,” “he added,” and other qualifiers to a line of speech. You don’t need to put these on every line as long as it’s clear which character is talking, and that’s where having them use slightly different words can help set one speaker off from the other. Also, avoid getting too fancy with tags. “He said,” is much more clear than “she sniffed,” “he chortled,” and other over-the-top descriptions. You can use them, but like hot pepper sauce, they’re best used in moderation.

Go. Write. Write that sea monster dialogue. And have fun!