In my journey to becoming an author, I’ve struggled with dialog that is typically cold and flat. The character’s words may be nice, polite, or sometimes downright rude, but personality doesn’t come through on the page. There is nothing likable or detestable about them, no way for the reader to love or hate them.
This past year, I’ve read and analyzed other people’s successful work, listened intently to dialog in movies and in real life. I’ve tried using character development charts for plotting out unique personalities, made long lists of likes, dislikes, and challenges each faces so I can get to know who they are. Yet I have not been able to apply these lessons to my character’s dialog.
Bottom line, I still suck at writing dialog. What am I not getting?
Nothing clicked for me until I got a suggestion last week – over at Critique Circle – on a piece I submitted for review. The “critter” used a military commander I had written for my story as an example. He pointed out this man is used to being in charge and in control, and therefore needs to speak directly, decisively, and to the point. The way I wrote his dialog, he sounded just like all my other characters.
Yikes. Someone reads my story and sees my characters better than I do. Humbling. All the reading, studying and writing I’ve done over the past year didn’t expose what that one comment did.
Now I get it.
*Slaps self on forehead*
I have been doing the talking FOR my characters. I move them around like a child playing with paper dolls. Sure, I build a story for them, give them a history and fairly well define personalities, but I never let them spring to life. I fail to let them speak for themselves, as themselves. Basically, that boils down to: I have been using dialog to TELL rather than SHOW.
*Shakes head at the now-oh-so-obvious revelation*
Why didn’t I see that myself? Most likely because I haven’t been looking in earnest, just waiting for an answer to magically work itself out. And we all know the chances of that happening!
I bring a lifelong (and it’s a pretty long lifetime) habit of expository writing to the table. Using those skills in narrative fiction yields flat, cardboard, unanimated characters. Yup. There is an upside – I am learning this before I put anything out for publication.
Expository writing taught me to state facts, give supporting evidence, cite sources, and then wrap up with repetition of the pertinent, now supported facts. It also taught me not to editorialize, and never put myself – and certainly not my opinions – into what I’ve written. I have been utilizing that same formula in my new venture into fiction. Even though these are my stories, I have edited and reduced them to “just the facts” as my default.
I am amazed and confounded when the solution to a problem, as most often is the case, turns out to be simple and obvious. My tendency in personal matters is to dodge around the simple and obvious, preferring to search for a myriad of odd and sundry conundrums instead. I have come to understand that behavior allows me not to change, lets me remain in my safe habits. I am more of a hobbit than a warrior. My experience in business let me put on my “suit” of armor, replete with expository writing skills, and I became capable of fearlessness, able to re-orient to new situations and marshal others to follow my lead. Course my personal stakes were not life and death, and if I made an error – I would regroup and attack it again. Writing fiction, on the other hand, has great stakes. Strike out or make grievous errors, and memory is long and tied directly to my name. Yikes!
When I retired a few months ago and hung up the power suit, that didn’t mean I hung up old habits, especially those dealing with writing. Well, I am bringing out the mothballs and intend to wrap the ones that don’t serve me well up now and store them away! And I’m excited and more than ready to see what I, and my characters, come up with from now on! ~~ Or ~~ alternately, I’m ready to find out what my stumbling block may be and get to work on that!
Summary being added to my page: LESSONS I’m learning on my Journey to becoming an author
#6. Let my characters speak. I have learned that narrative fiction uses a different-skill set than expository writing. Everything I write comes from my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and I need to develop my voice. But the characters in my story must have their own voices, and it needs to match their personality, situation, and lifestyle. I have to know them in depth, and make sure they come alive with conflict and have a stake – something to win or lose. If my story’s dialog is dry and lifeless, there’s a good chance I am putting words in their mouths, and not letting my characters speak.