Friday, March 6, 2015

Dialogue Skills to Develop Real or Imagined Characters--And Help Sell Your Book to a Publisher!

Imagine a publisher sitting in front your manuscript.  By some wild luck, and your hard work, it has arrived in his or her hands.  Now it awaits trial.  Will it pass or fail?

The publisher skims the pages until a section of dialogue appears.  It's read and the entire book is judged on how the dialogue moves.  If it's good, the publisher turns back to the first pages and begins to read your story.  If the dialogue is clunky, the manuscript is set aside with a sigh (or a laugh) and the publisher moves on to the next in the stack.
  
Sound like a fantasy?  Nope.  It's a true story, told to me.  Dialogue is often the sign of good writing.  And quite a few publishers/agents/editors use it as a way to triage fiction and memoir manuscripts. 
  
So why don't more writers try to learn  the craft of writing good dialogue? Because it is hard, because so many believe that if you can listen to real-life speech, you can write literary dialogue.  Because they don't know about the three key elements of good dialogue:  beats, reveal, and subtext. 
   
It took me years to learn these.  From screenwriters, from the few teachers who instruct on dialogue skill (truly, there aren't many).  Most assume that you just get it or you don't, but I don't buy that.  Anything can be learned and practiced.

Once a year, I teach a one-day workshop on writing dialogue.  We study beats, reveal, and subtext, and a few other tools to make dialogue crackle.  I'll be offering this workshop on Friday, April 3, in Minneapolis, at the Loft Literary Center.  You can click on the above sentence and see more details.  The workshop is $105 for the entire day and it's a life-changer, in terms of your writing.   

Memoir and fiction writers really need dialogue skills.  Even nonfiction writers need it now; just scan the nonfiction bestsellers (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot comes to mind, or any of Daniel Pink's books).  
  
How to Begin Writing Good Dialogue 
 Listening to real-life talk is a first step.  From good listening, you become aware of "beats," or the rhythm of dialogue, the pauses, the interruptions, the partial sentences.  Learning to listen for beats is essential, but then you have to learn translate the spoken beats to dialogue happens on the page.  It has different rules, mostly that the written dialogue lines have to be about 100 times more intense than spoken, because we are not present to pick up all the other cues that reveal meaning.

This is where "subtext" comes in, the undercurrent beneath written dialogue.  Subtext is present in spoken speech as well, but much less so.   One of my favorite examples is Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," where what's not being said comes forward much more loudly than the words themselves.  That's subtext at its best.

 
"Reveal" is the third dialogue element to get to know.  Reveal is when truth is present in written dialogue.  It is like the brightest color in your palette.  It's only used very occasionally, when it really counts. 

But most writers just learning dialogue will dump reveals in every few seconds.  They give information and facts in their dialogue, or lots of backstory.  Poor choice.  Reveal takes away all subtext.  And subtext provides both tension and emotion.  So you've just made your dialogue the kind that won't get your manuscript a further read. 
  

It's great to finally figure all this out and learn the steps to practicing it.  One of my students who attended this workshop later told me that writing good dialogue has made a huge difference in his novel--according to his writing group and others who've read it.  Like he became a good writer almost overnight, just by improving his dialogue.  

Consider joining me on April 2.  Details are here.