Episode 36: Writing great dialogue can be one of the biggest challenges a writer faces. Today we explore a technique that most writers overlook, and it’s something you’ve probably never thought to try!
I think the element of writing that gives me the most trouble is dialogue, and I’m actually not sure why. From the outside looking in, it feels like it should be the easy part. I mean, I’ve been talking and listening and hearing people talk for nearly five decades now. Dialogue should be second nature to me now. But, when I sit down to write it, it often comes out clunky, unrealistic, and too forced. And I get what I should be doing with dialogue: I get subtext and all that stuff. And I’ve learned ways to go back and revise and rewrite and rework dialogue until it’s better, but I never really get to the point that I feel like it’s “good.”
A recent QuickWrite exercise I did with my Creative Writing class began to change that for me, though. It came from a book called NOW WRITE edited by Sherry Ellis… it’s the same book I mentioned last week and you’ll find a link in the show notes if you’re interested in picking up a copy. In the book, Sands Hall, author of the novel CATCHING HEAVEN and a book on writing called TOOLS OF THE WRITER’S CRAFT introduces an exercise called Dialogue Without Words.
The challenge is basically this: write a scene of conflict between at least two characters with absolutely no dialogue whatsoever. The characters never breathe a word to each other. Instead, figure out ways to show the conflict through the setting, the mise-en-scene, and the body language and actions of the characters. People say that 90% of what we communicate comes through body language, and this exercise is your opportunity to bring that other 90% into play.
Sands recommends doing a little pre-planning for your dialogue-less scene. Figure out what the conflict is going to be–a marital spat over who is going to cook dinner or a trainer frustrated with the ineptitude of their trainee, for example–and choose a setting that sets up that conflict. Then let the characters begin to move, make facial expressions, gestures, and interact with things in the setting that show their emotional state and desires. The goal is not necessarily to write so specifically that your reader could say “oh, she’s upset because she thinks her husband is cheating on her with his secretary,” although you probably want to have the specificity in mind as you are writing it. Instead, the goal is that your reader learns and inuits something about these characters through something other than dialogue. Without dialogue, your reader’s other ways of creating meaning go into overdrive and become very sensitive. They’ll read into every nuance, every movement, to discover what’s going on.
You’ll be surprised at how much you can communicate to your reader, and how much your characters can communicate with each other, without using any words at all. It’s the essence of “show don’t tell.” You’re showing what the characters aren’t speaking… or literally “telling” each other. It’s a powerful technique that will bring your readers right into your story and get them interacting with it to figure it out.
One way I use this in my own writing is that I’ll first try to write a scene without any dialogue at all. I’m surprised how often it actually works out pretty well. Then, once I’ve done the best I can without any dialogue at all, I’ll go back and drop in as little as I possibly can. Doing it this way really makes the impact and power of what the characters DO say that much stronger. It’s like a word suddenly yelled in a quiet library. Everyone will notice and pay attention to it because it stands out from the rest of the atmosphere.
The other thing I love, love, love about this technique is that you can start playing with how people lie and deceive each other. If you’ve created a scene where there is no (or very little) dialogue where the settings, actions, and body language clearly show that a husband despises his wife, you can have him finally walk up and whisper “I love you” in her ear and your reader will want to punch in right in the face. We KNOW he’s lying because he’s been telling her in absolutely every other way. Now we see that the “I love you” is a manipulation because it stand against the rest of the way the man is communicating. Now we have an interesting character with ulterior motives and your reader can feel like a genius because they’ve “figured it out.
If you’re really interested in this technique, you might want to go back and watch some old silent films to see how they communicate emotion, desire and intention. Sure, there’s the occasional card that pops up to deliver a line of dialogue, but these filmmakers were masters of accomplishing as much as possible without relying on dialogue. Really live in the details as you watch these films. Maybe even pause them every once in awhile and explore everything that’s in the scene–the lighting, the camera angle, the body positioning, the expressions, the props and tools in the characters’ hands and the things in the background. They all play a role in creating the wordless conflict and they are all just as accessible to us as prose writers as they are to filmmakers.
The more I play with this technique, the more I realize how much I use dialogue as a crutch instead of a tool. It’s much easier to have a character say “I’m angry with you” to another character than it is to spend the time and brain power to create the perfect setting, the perfect background, and describe the tilt of an eyebrow or the twist of a mouth that communicates the same emotion under the surface. But it’s so worth the effort. Your readers are masters of reading these little clues because it’s how we interact with the real world every day. The only thing we’ve got more experience in than hearing and constructing language is reading into the actions and intentions of others. Before we ever learned the meaning of the word “no” we were able to recognize the tiny change of posture, the furrowing of a brow in a parent’s face. This kind of writing gets back to that basic form of reading and understanding the world. It’s almost primeval, I think.
So there’s your tip for writing better dialogue. Write far, far less dialogue. And I can hear you now… “But I have a character who is defined by how talkative he is!” Or, “But I’m writing a phone conversation or an argument in court!” There are always exceptions, of course. And those exceptions are always opportunities to do something intentional for even more impact. How much more would your chatty Kathy character stand out if there was less dialogue from others in the story? How much more would we understand the subtext of a phone conversation if we could see one party twisting a phone cord nervously in their fingers as they talked? Oh, man. Did I just date myself or what? How long has it been since phones had cords! Anyway, hopefully you still get what I mean.
There’s an old adage that goes something like this: Watch what people do, not what they say. People can lie and decieve and embellish and withhold with their language, but what they actually DO is who they really are and what they really mean. That’s true in our writing just as much as it’s true in the world around us.
Today’s Wise Word comes to us from writing guru and author of craft books “Story” and “Dialogue,” Robert McKee. It’s tangentially related to today’s topic, but we’ll explore that in a second. First, here’s McKee on storytelling:
‘If the story you’re telling, is the story you’re telling, you’re in deep shit’ – Robert McKee
With apologies for the swear word, I think this is a truism about writing that is often overlooked. We think if we have a great premise, a great story world, or an interesting, unique character, that the story will take care of itself. That that will be enough to carry it through. But stories are always about something deeper than the plot, some expression of how to live in the world, how to overcome our obstacles, or how to see the world in a new way. We’ve discussed this in other episodes, but this is basically what is happening on a miniscule level in our dialogue–or at least it’s what SHOULD be happening. We might modify McKee’s statement here by saying “If the dialogue your character is speaking is really what they are saying, you’re in deep shit.” Dialogue is almost always a kind of mask for what the character is really trying to say. It’s a kind of weapon that the character uses to get what they want from the person they are talking to. Wise words indeed. McKee is a bit of a controversial figure in the world of writing gurus, but I think there is value in every book on craft that is written. It’s all about taking what works for you and leaving the rest behind. If you haven’t checked out any of McKee’s work, I highly suggest you do. I know it’s made a huge impact on my writing and it likely will on yours as well.
This is the part of the show where I usually share a writing challeng for the week ahead, but I’m going to forego that this week since the show itself was basically a writing challenge to try to write scenes with as little dialogue as possible. Instead, I’d like to introduce something I’ll be sharing in the newsletter I talked about at the top of the show. I’m calling it the BIG READ and it’s a chance for me to share what I’m reading right now and how it’s informing my writing.
Yes, I’m a little slow getting around to reading this 2010 best-seller, but I’ve been a bit scared of it, to be honest. The story of survival and isolation is right up my alley, but I just wasn’t sure I could handle reading about someone cutting off their own arm. I knew it would be a great model for my current work-in-progress, though, so I finally bit the bullet and dove in. I’m only about a quarter of the way in as of today.
Insight: This book seems to be a good model for how to incorporate backstory into what could be a relatively dull experience overall. How else could a writer sustain over 400 pages of “Oh, shit! I’m stuck under this rock” without jumping into backstory? Ralston seems to be using an every-other-chapter technique to break up the story: one chapter in “real-time” as he tries to extricate himself followed by a chapter building up his outdoorsman cred and backstory. I’m not sure I’m crazy about the technique because I already feel the pull to skip the backstory chapters to get to the “good stuff.” (Did I just call a person cutting off their own arm, the “good stuff? Yikes.) I wonder if it might have worked better if it was structured like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild where she falls in and out of backstory as the experiences she’s having bring them to mind. It seems more natural to the way humans actually process experiences and isn’t quite as jarring to the reader. I’d love to hear your take on it! Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter @bradreedwrites.
So that’s going to wrap it up for this week. I hope I haven’t turned you off with the news that we might be wrapping up the podcast in the next few weeks. Again, that decision hasn’t been finalized, but I do hope you’ll subscribe to the newsletter so we don’t lose touch if that is that case. Head on over to www.BradReedWrites.com and you’ll see a link for it there.
Until next week, remember the best way to improve your craft is by writing. That’s what I’m off to go do, and I hope you’re off to do the same. Let’s get some words on paper this week and we’ll meet up again next week for another episode of the Inside Creative Writing podcast!