Thursday, May 7, 2009

Getting Information Across, Part One: Dialog

Okay, I'm going to do a three-part series (but let's face it, my three-parters tend to turn into four or five or six-parters. Don't say you haven't been warned) on how you get information across in a piece of writing. I'm starting with these in mind. You can tell me what else I need to stew on if you want. I'm nothing if not open to suggestions.

1. Dialog
2. Narration
3. Internal thoughts

So today, I'm starting with dialog. Having your characters SAY important information is a great way to get the story out.

Warning: Don't engage your characters in a conversation where both parties already know all the information but the reader does not. That's wicked lame.

It's got to be an authentic conversation between people. It can reveal who the characters are by the way they talk, how you choose to have them react, and what words you put in their mouths.

And dialog can also get out crucial background information or other facts you need a character (and thus, the reader) to learn. For example, take this snippet of dialog from my now-curing WiP, Elemental Hunger. It's mostly dialog where Gabby (the narrator) is learning some stuff she didn't know.


The silence stretched on as I struggled to make sense of what he’d said. “Mentor? As in…you were training to be a sentry? Why? There’s an Elemental school in Tarpulin.”

“Not anymore,” Adam said, his voice flat. “Alex buried the school under a mountain a year ago. That’s why I left. All the schools in the Northern Territories have been destroyed. I’m only alive because she doesn’t know I’m Elemental. I’d been on the sentry track for twelve years.”

“All the schools?”

“Yup. I’ve been hopping from school to school, managing to escape before the flood or the earthquake. Crylon was the last—and now it’s burned.”

“I didn’t do it,” I said automatically.

“I know. Felix did. Do you think he could’ve gotten here so fast? All the way from Tarpulin?”

I knew Tarpulin was far away, but I didn't know how far. “But he’s not Elemental.”

“No, but he can strike a match.”

“Why? Why would Alex send her sentries to destroy the Elemental schools?”

He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “You don’t know much about Alex, do you?”

Anger burned through my veins. “I didn’t get to attend Firemaker lessons. In case you haven’t figured it out, no one knew I was Elemental either. I know who Alex is. I know everyone is afraid of him—including me. He’s ruthless and cruel.”

“And a girl,” Adam said, eyeing me again.


“Alex is a woman. And she possesses all four Elements.”

I stared at him as he peeled the blackened skin off of the chicken. “No way.”

“Way, man. Uh, I mean....”

“How is that possible?”


This is mostly dialog. And I really need Gabby to know that Alex is a woman. Smart readers will catch Adam's "slip" in the second paragraph. I want the reader to see that, wonder about it, and then get the information right away. I also want/need the information about all the schools being demolished in there. And that little bit about how far Tarpulin is. And Felix....

So you see, dialog can really get a lot of crucial information out in the open in a relatively short amount of time.

It's also one of the hardest things to write, I think. It's important to make sure it sounds natural. Don't let your characters say things they wouldn't say. Don't let them say contrived or overdone things just because you want them to/you need them to/or you think it's the way to go.

Just let them be...themselves. Let them talk, carefully inserting the words you need them to say to get across the information you need. But don't rob them of who they are or the voice they use. It's a delicate balance, one you probably need a crit group, therapy and a large platter of bacon to find. Wait. That might just be me. Never mind.

But seriously, you want your dialog to be authentic. As if you really were eavesdropping on these people, learning the vital information you need to keep the reader invested in their story. And that can be done by good use of dialog. So get them talking!

How will you know when/if your dialog is authentic/awesome?

My tip: Read your dialog out loud. Does it flow like a conversation? Does it sound stilted and awkward? Natural? Too old for the character? Too young? Is it "trying too hard"? You'll know if you read it out loud.

And I like to hear you talk. Does this dialog (in my snippet) work for you? What age would you say these characters are? How can you tell? What do you learn about them? Who's older? Wiser? More in control? Do you consciously think of these things when you're writing dialog? (I'm not saying I do, cuz I don't. But I definitely think about them during the editing stage.)

Finally, do you like writing dialog? I totally love it. It's one of my favorite things to write. And so, so powerful if done right. to me! What say you about dialog?


christinefonseca said...

You are brilliant at dialog! And you've helped me get better at it. Reading it out loud is a huge help.
Great post (and I lve series *wink* )

beth said...

My problem tends to be that I ask too many questions in dialog.

Character A: *asks question*
Character B: *answers*
A: *ask*
B: *answer*

I try to build it into my story more naturally, but I often slip into ask/answer

Tess said...

If there is a swatch of dialog that I am questioning, I usually ask someone else to read it out loud. You see, I know what I'm trying to say and will put the emphasis just right -- if someone else can't read it the same way, then it needs to go back to the drawing board.

Great post, Elana!

adrcremer said...

I love the story and great points about the relationship of plot and dialogue.

I did notice, however, and it made me stumble as a reader that your MC uses a female pronoun for Alex in the sentence "Why would Alex send her sentries..."

And later Adam says "And a girl," at which the MC is shocked, so I'm guessing that earlier "her" was not supposed to be there?

Windsong said...

Very nice post! Dialogue can be tricky because conversations in books aren't like conversations in the real world. Conversations in books need to have a point, most in the real world don't, or at least, they take their sweet time getting here.

Awesome examples! I look forward to the rest of the series. :D

Nisa said...

Writing dialog is actually my favorite part! It seems to come much easier to me than writing descriptions. I have to really think about those, but the dialog just flies from my fingers, err... thoughts. I don't know how good it really is, but it flows well as I've read aloud to my husband. He's such a patient guinea pig.

Loved the excerpt and I can't wait for the next installments particularly internal thoughts.

Rebecca Knight said...

Great post, Elana, and great example :).

I love writing dialogue, but used to avoid it like the plague because I wasn't sure I could pull it off.

You're absolutely right that reading it out loud helps. And of course, the therapy and bacon ;)...

Scott said...

Great Post! I try to make my dialogue as real as possible. Sometimes, I type in a wrong word and catch it when editing. I've often left in the wrong word, and altered the other characters dialogue to note the wrong word. Why? Becuase, every now and then, while talking, I use the wrong word and really screw up what I was trying to say. If I do that, why shouldn't my characters. For me, the dialogue needs to seem natural and real, not contrived.


Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I've always loved writing dialogue, and it's probably one of the reasons I was drawn towards writing screenplays as well.

One of the things I try to remember to do in dialogue that's for exposition is have there be some kind of tension to the scene.

Another technique that we talked about in film school was to have the exposition come out while there is action going on at the same time. I remember them showing us a scene from Terminator to illustrate it.

Anyway, great post Elana - can't wait to read more!

Litgirl01 said...

Great post...I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I read a friend's book recently, and she did a great job with this. Reading your fellow aspiring writers' books is an amazing learning experience.

Abby said...

Dialogue is the easy part for me. Well, maybe not always easy, but fun. I love the challenge of conveying emotion through words rather than description. In fact, if I could skip the description, and just write dialogue, I would.

Great post!

Eric said...

Dialogue is one of the hardest things for me. I'm still in the process of learning how to stay in each character's mindset as they're speaking, letting the voice be theirs rather than mine. But this is really good information so thanks for posting. I like what you have written here. It sounds to me like the two people are young, maybe late teens or early twenties at the most. Adam seems more mature (or less naive maybe), but not much older. But the dialogue does flow fairly well. I'm not sure I "got" the slip of gender that Adam lets out, because I didn't realize until later on that the other character didn't know it either. So if that's the whole point, then its done well.

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