By Ned Hickson
Writing must ring true with readers for them to become emotionally invested. This is particularly important when it comes to fiction, where you are often asking readers to suspend their disbelief and buy into something — such as an eccentric character, over-the-top situation or random reference to the new iPad6® in hopes of getting a free one — that requires a leap of faith. In this case, your reader is making a “leap” over reality because they have faith that you, the writer, will keep them safely suspended until they land safely on the last page. Assuming, of course, your book doesn’t end with, “…Then there was a massive explosion and everybody died, including the basket of puppies.”
As with taking any kind of leap, you must first gain momentum through a series of confident and quickening footfalls along a solid foundation. This applies to your writing as much as it does, hypothetically speaking, to clearing the front fence of your home in order to beat your son to the restroom after a long car ride. Without the right amount of momentum, your reader could end up — again, hypothetically speaking — doing the splits on a picket fence.
The most effective way for a writer to build a reader’s momentum toward a solid jumping-off point is through writing that resonates with an underlying honesty. This doesn’t mean confessing how you re-named areas of Mrs. Flunkem’s 7th-grade world map with parts of the reproductive system. Although changing “Panama Canal” to “Fallopian Tube” is worth mentioning, hypothetically speaking of course. No, when it comes to honesty in fiction writing I’m referring to what I like to call the “Double-D” approach, and not for reasons you might think. In this case we’re referring to “dialogue” and “description” that ring true enough to establish believability — and lay the foundation of confidence your reader will need when asked to make that leap with you. This applies equally to completely fictional characters, real people written within a fictional context (such as my “interviews” with Kevin Spacey and Clay Aiken), and the persona we project on our blogs and social media sites.
Dialogue is used to convey many things, from mood to information, plot points to character profiles. Because writing dialogue is complex and deserves its own post, today I’m focusing specifically on ways to make your dialogue — whether character driven or as author narrative — ring true and build trust with your reader. In a later post, we’ll talk about the difference between “telling and showing,” avoiding too many “he said, she said” references and the common mistake of nonsensical “action” dialogue (“Then I’m LEAVING!” he yelled, slamming the door on her still-parted lips poised in reply…)
Also, for purposes of this post, the subject of “description” will be limited to building believability in your character by effectively describing their actions. We’ll save descriptive passages like “The sun was setting in the canyon like a giant navel orange into God’s fruit bowl…” for another time.
Dialogue: It’s one of the fastest ways to earn — or lose — a reader’s trust. Whether it’s your voice as a blogger or words spoken by someone in a story, you are essentially having a conversation with your reader asking them to “believe.” And just like that guy at your office who is always talking about his nights of crazy sex when, in fact, you took your kids to the dollar theater Friday night and saw him sitting alone watching “Frozen,” you know he’s full of Whoppers. The same goes for your readers.
Unless they’re too busy singing “Let It Go.”
Assuming they aren’t, possibly because they have been shot, here are three tips to writing dialogue readers can believe in:
1) When writing narrative dialogue, don’t allow yourself to fall into “lecture” mode. We don’t like it from our parents, teachers, bosses, ex-wives, etc., and readers don’t either. Always keep your reader in mind. Pause every few paragraphs or minutes, depending on how fast you type (total elapsed time for this paragraph: three days) and ask yourself, “If I was having this conversation on the street with a stranger, what would they be thinking right now? Would they have questions? What feedback would they have? If someone drove by on a motor scooter, would they yank them off and steal the scooter just to get away?” You are building a relationship with your reader and, as with any good relationship, the other person needs to feel acknowledged. You can do this many ways, including throwing a question directly into your narrative.
See what I mean?
It’s a way to break out of the lecture mode and invite them into the conversation. Another approach is specifically stating the question they might have…
I know what you’re thinking: Is he always this verbose, or is it the coffee?
Narrative “dialogue” should be just that: Narrative that makes your reader feel included or acknowledged in the conversation, which builds trust.
2) Dialogue from a real person within a fictional context is simultaneously easy and extremely difficult. I say this because, on one hand, you have the nuances of their dialogue pattern already established in television and magazine interviews; it’s simply a matter of studying the way they speak and incorporating it into the dialogue you are creating for them. On the other hand, if you get it wrong, every reader will know it immediately.
I’m not buying it. Angelina Jolie would never refer to her children as “My little sucklings.”
In this case, you have to think of your dialogue as a caricature, making sure to include specific details of the person’s speech pattern — choice of words, cadence, vocabulary — that are recognizable as theirs. Just like how a caricature artists relies on key physical traits that distinguishes one individual from another, you must do the same when sketching out dialogue representing a famous person. Even if you don’t regularly “interview” famous people like I do (at least until there’s an injunction), it’s a great writing exercise that forces you to analyze all the nuances of dialogue.
Or as Angelina Jolie would say, “Go ahead — Make my day.”
3) Writing character dialogue that rings true and earns a reader’s trust really comes down to one basic principle: Consistency. I purposely placed this after “famous person dialogue” because many of the same rules apply. Though you’re writing about a fictional person, readers will recognize when you’re not being “true” to the character. When we meet new people, we instinctively study them to determine how far the relationship will extend. Acquaintance? Confidante? If there are inconsistencies in their behavior, such as explaining how they own a Porsche dealership yet leave the bar driving a 1987 Ford Fiesta, we tend to question their honesty. The same goes for character dialogue. Readers study it and quickly form an opinion. If the character’s vocabulary isn’t consistent, or they speak in bullet points one minute then in long Shakespearian soliloquies the next, you’ll lose your reader’s trust.
‘Tis truth I speak.
So take time to determine the nuances of your character’s speech pattern in the same way you would with their physical appearance and backstory. Or backside. Or whatever.
This is officially the longest post of my life. If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for taking this leap of faith with me. If you didn’t make it this far, then I can call you a big jerk and you’ll never know.
Next week, we’ll continue with “Description,” and tips on how it can enhance dialogue and build trust with your readers that will make them want to take a leap of faith — instead of a flying leap.
Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.