Recently, I had the pleasure of hearing an author read from her vampire romance novel. Let me clear, I love a good gothic romance. I was excited to hear her read. Overall, she presented a solid story with interesting characters who struggled with deep emotional problems.
However, those characters expressed exactly what those problems were through dialogue. You’ll hear this type of dialogue referred to as, on-the-nose dialogue. It’s called on-the-nose dialogue, because it practically punches you on-the-nose with characters telling each other exactly how they feel, what they think, and what the next plot point is. This is not the ideal way to create emotion in your reader.
Here’s the truth. Every story is a mystery.
Readers like to figure things out. Some people think that reading a novel is a passive form of entertainment. The author does all the work, right? Not so. The reader takes their experiences, their insights into the story. They only experience what the character experiences through empathy. Empathy needs similar experiences to work.
We haven’t all fallen in love with a cruel vampire king who is threatening to kill our brother if we don’t drink his blood and become his cursed vampire queen for all eternity. But most of us had relationships that presented tough dilemmas. As an author, it’s your job to present tough emotional choices without making your characters explicitly state those emotions through dialogue.
But how do you do that?
Let Your Dialogue Show, Not Tell
Each character in every scene wears a type of mask to hide their vulnerability from the other characters. The basic romance plot involves two people breaking down their masks until they reveal the true person underneath, and once they see the true person, they fall madly in love and live happily ever after.
If a character is attempting to hide that she’s truly in love with the vampire king because she’s afraid he’ll use that love against her, she’ll act and say the opposite of someone who is in love. If the vampire king, who is not actually cruel and terrible, is truly in love with the peasant girl from the village, but can’t reveal this because his truly evil sister will drain her blood and make her a zombie vampire… ok, you get the point.
Characters have two attributes:
- There is the hidden true self.
- And the mask that they show to those they do not want to hurt be hurt by.
Characters speak from the mask, but think from the true self. If you’re wondering how to build on point number two? Characters often express the worst side of their opinion in dialogue, while acting on the best part of an opinion.
Say Good-bye to Predictable Dialogue Exposition
Does your dialogue handles exposition poorly? “As you know, Bob,” is the oldest cliché in fiction. It’s the worst way to deliver exposition. I see lots of advice that basically states, “Don’t ever use the ‘As you know, Bob,’ cliché,” but they rarely present fixes for when you must deliver exposition through dialogue.
Here a couple of ways to make that dialogue exposition sound more like music and less like screeching violins:
- If a character has to explain something that the reader needs to understand through exposition, let them explain it to someone who is an outsider. Two characters that know the same thing are not going to exposit, but an outsider to the world of your story can ask the right questions. Bonus points if the character doing the explaining is reluctant to do so.
- Let the character receiving the explanation build on it, fill in gaps, and take the explanation in interesting directions. Your space fleet commander probably never thought of traveling through hyperspace from the perspective of an artist or poet. Clashing these two opinionated characters over exposition could actually create something new from the exchange–I’m skipping ahead, but this is one of the main uses of dialogue; to combine two things in order to create something new.
Let Your Dialogue Reflect Real Person Speech
Ever read a novel where a group of soldiers are pinned down by enemy fire and one soldier is giving a long, patriotic speech to another soldier before they both rush into battle? Or have you read the romance where two characters give detailed, long explanations about family obligation and honor before committing to a night in bed? These are laughable examples, but they point to a problem I often see in novels.
So how do we make our characters sound like real people?
- Dialogue is Situational: The dialogue of the characters does not fit with the situation–they don’t seem true or real to the moment. Most of the time this is an attempt to create an emotional climax. A long, dramatic monologue by one character to another will not create an emotional climax. Sorry, Ayn Rand, but it’s true. If the reader didn’t get the point of your story while slogging through the whole novel of Atlas Shrugged, a long monologue by John Galt isn’t going to suddenly enlighten the reader.
- Dialogue Length: For example, in action scenes, unless it’s been established that your character will make long speeches at inopportune times, it isn’t likely a character will do much speaking. This is why quick banter is the common way characters speak during gunfights, car chases, and while running from zombie hordes. There are times when you want to work against the trope and have a character attempt to give a long speech during an action scene; be sure that it’s clear to the reader how difficult this is.
- Keep Reader’s Expectations in Mind: Like the guideline of avoiding writing dialogue that’s on-the-nose, it isn’t a bad idea to experiment with dialogue that is against the reader’s expectation. If a character has opinions about violence, he’ll likely state those opinions during times of violence–even if it seems inappropriate. A character’s opinion can definitely trump a common trope.
Shawn Scarber lives and works in North Texas. His fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Black Denim Lit, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Abyss & Apex magazines among others. He’s a Clarion West 06 graduate and an active member of the Future Classics Speculative Fiction Writers. Connect with him on Twitter @obliquefiction. Follow him on FaceBook fb.com/shawn.scarber or check out his website, shawnscarber.com.