DIALOGUE PART 3
Or: "Who said whatnow?"
The comments: "Your characters all sound generic/the same." Or "I can't tell people apart when they're talking." Or "Your dialogue scenes are eye-gougingly boring."
What they might mean:
1) Some, if not all, of your characters talk with a similar vocabulary and sentence structure.
2) Some, if not all, of your dialogue scenes lack tension.
Let's pull on our serious pants early this week because we're wading into the deeper end of the "Dialogue Revision" Pool. This part of my Dialogue Module might require complete rewrites of your scenes or a literal re-vision of your plot.
To address Point 1, answer these questions: Do you have more than one character in your story? Yes.
Do your characters speak to each other in dialogue scenes? Yes.
Now the most important part: Are your characters clones of each other. Like, seriously, clones that were born/hatched at the same time, raised in the same way, want the same exact thing? No?
Ok, then why do they all sound alike?
Here's where it can get a little tricky. When you're reading your own WIP, you can hear the characters' voices in your head. However, the characters' Voices may all look and sound the same to your readers. (An experienced Beta will pinpoint this quickly, a casual reader may not, but may feel there's something "off" about your dialogue scenes.)
The way to spot it on your own WIP is to take a big chunk of early dialogue and look only at the words the characters say. Try to pick a chunk with only two speakers.
Next, remove the dialogue attribution tags.
Now, can you easily tell who is speaking which lines?
If you can, awesome. If not, tweak the sample. Now would be a good time for those Character 5x5s from the Character Module!
With the Character 5x5s (or whatever Character Bible you're using) pick apart each line of dialogue.
Does each line reflect the Character's background of education, birthplace, reason for being in the story? Are you using words the Character would have picked up at some point? Did you put the words together the way the character would? Did you make the Character sound like a stereotype or a genre trope?
Here's an example of one dialogue line tweaked to reflect information from four different Character 5x5s:
"I want you to steal the next load of slaves and get them ready for the party."
"Procure the shipment, would you? And please make sure they're appropriately dressed for the gala."
"Snatch the next batch of hodads and paint'em up for the hoedown."
"Reappropriate the incoming cargo. Tonight, they should look like low-hanging fruit to besieged peasants."
For your WIP, check your dialogue scenes for how true you stay to the Characters you created.
Now let's look at Part 2: Lack of tension in dialogue scenes.
This is most likely due to one simple thing, which unfortunately might not be simple to fix:
Each Character speaking should have his or her or its own motive for saying what they say, when they say it.
Buckle down, pen in hand, and examine an early 2-person scene. Let's call them Bob and Andromeda.
If Bob and Andromeda are talking in a scene, that dialogue scene must first fulfill the basic reasons for inclusion:
1) Develop the characters.
2) Move the plot forward.
3) Reinforce/develop the themes.
Ideally, the dialogue scene must fill all three requirements to justify its existence. If not, it should be spectacularly strong in two aspects. If only in one, see if you can work it in another way because it would be the first thing on the chopping block for me.
Next, take a look at the scene from your Main Character's perspective. Let's say it's Bob. Does Bob want something from Andromeda? (Answer should be an easy yes. His motive should be fairly clear to the reader because his stake in the conversation becomes the reader's stake in the conversation.)
Now, take a look at the scene from the secondary character's perspective, Andromeda. Does Andromeda want something from Bob? In other words, does Andromeda have a stake in how the conversation ends? This is the sticking point. Finding Andromeda's motive. Could be as simple as not wanting to talk. Could be as complex as trying to hide her involvement in Bob's horse's murder.
Andromeda's motive must exist and be clear to you, the writer, but doesn't have to be crystal clear to the reader. In fact, as a reader, most of the fun I experience with dialogue scenes is trying to figure out why the fuck people don't just say what they know or what they're hiding, or trying to figure out what they want from the MC. But it's the writer's job to find the sweet spot between showing enough of the secondary character's motivation to make the scene interesting, and showing too much and rendering the conversation too convenient for plot.
In your WIP, if you find a dialogue scene where tension falls or levels off, make sure each person speaking has a personal reason for speaking or resisting.
Also, if you find that some dialogue scenes boil down to a "Question and Answer" session, see if you can weave what the MC finds out into action, introspection, internal monologue or narration, or narrative worldbuilding.
Here's how these two aspects of dialogue come together in your WIP:
Great dialogue is like a symphony. Each character's voice is a specific instrument, and each character has a unique part. Even when several instruments are layered together, you can still hear the violin, the clarinet, the flute or piano. But it's harder to hear the differences between instruments, and therefore, the beauty of the piece, if they're playing the same melody at the same time.
Happy Writing and Revising!
J (follow me on twitter! @joanwip)
If you'd like my take on a writerly subject, tweet me!