Today’s post was written by Amy Green, blogger and author of young adult fiction. For more thoughts on writing, faith and fiction, check out her blog!
If you want the safe version of this post, here are three simple tips to writing better dialogue: listen to others, know your characters well, and ask others for help with editing. You can stop right there. Go ahead. I won’t be offended. Really.
If you’re still reading, let me tell you something: there’s a problem with those three simple tips.
They’re not simple. And they probably won’t work.
How do I know? Because I am a selfish person, and I recently realized that the biggest obstacle to writing good dialogue is selfishness. Before you stone me with copies of Christian Writer’s Market Guide, here are the reasons why I came to this conclusion.
Selfishness keeps us from listening
I have a cartoon taped to my desk where a boy is going on a rant about how most people just “wait to talk” instead of actually listening. “You know you’ve met someone special if they can respond to what you’ve said without launching into something unrelated about themselves,” he says.
Ouch. Do you know how humiliating it is to be called out on selfishness by a one-inch tall line drawing?
Most of the time, I don’t really listen to what people are saying. I just hijack the conversation to get it to what I want to talk about. That makes me selfish, obviously, but it also makes me a bad writer, because unless I learn to listen to what others say—really listen—I won’t be able to write what others say.
Selfishness makes people into props
I have this really bad habit of using people as objects in my life. Like in the section above, they can be springboards to topics of conversations I’m interested in, or I can use them to make me feel good about myself (sometimes by showing off my excellent sense of humor at their expense).
This carries over to my writing, too. I occasionally dump characters haphazardly into a scene simply because my protagonist needs them for something. Or I start a story with an antagonist who I know as much about as a person I looked up on Facebook.
Then I wonder why my dialogue sounds unnatural or repetitive.
To sound convincing, characters have to be made from fragments of reality—quirks, passions, irrational fears, and annoying habits that make other people want to punch them sometimes. Writing them as people instead of props is what makes the dialogue come alive, and it’s hard for me to do that if, in real life, my relationships with others are two-dimensional or all about me.
Selfishness refuses to ask for help
I don’t like asking for feedback on my dialogue, partly because I think I can do it on my own, and partly because I’m secretly afraid the other person will laugh at me.
If I have a male narrator, I should probably ask a guy if I’m getting it right. If I’m writing about a five-year-old boy, I should go to a mom with small kids to get help with his lines. But I’m too afraid, because what if I got it wrong and they laugh at me and quote the worst part on their Facebook status and everyone comments about how awful it is and they happen to be friends with an editor who blacklists me from every publisher in the country….
So, I clearly have an overactive imagination. The point is, if I don’t know what’s wrong, I can’t fix it. I have to be willing to put away my rugged individualism and fear of failure and get a different perspective on what I write.
I still struggle with all three of these. But I’m working on it. And, hey, even the process of writing this post was humbling. Which means I’m getting better at dialogue while writing a post on getting better at dialogue. Top that!
Oh. That was a little arrogant and selfish, wasn’t it?