By Matt Holgate, author of ‘The Dim Realm’ and ‘Unforgotten’
We all have relationships, so we all know that when this word is uttered – especially on its own, or in one of its myriad more-wonderful-than-the-last combinations of “I’m Fine” or “It’s Fine’ or, my personal knee-quivering favourite, “Fine, Matthew” – we all know that things are as far away from fine as they could possibly be. It would take the light from “Fine” thousands of years to reach us. With a map.
They may say it with a smile. A smile with probably too many teeth. (Or thin-lipped with no teeth at all. Pick your poison.) More often than not, things are most certainly not fine, and in a way that’s probably your fault, even if you don’t know it yet. The other times, something’s still wrong, but it’s not your fault, and yet you could be collateral damage nonetheless. (And for which you will somehow still pay for not instinctively knowing why something’s wrong in the first place.) I am sure that, in theory, mathematically there’s some chance in any given situation that things are actually fine. Hey, you can jump out of a flying airplane without a parachute and walk away from the landing relatively unscathed (which might be preferable to pushing to see if your better half really is “Fine” or not) but I would still not recommend it.
This is, in essence, the difficulty with and beauty of dialogue, and it all has to do with the intentions of your characters: every single word can mean so much more than its literal meaning. Heck, sometimes even despite its literal meaning.
Now, when it comes to writing books, I can only tell you about how I use dialogue, and what works for me. Everyone has to find their own way, especially with something that is so integral to making your characters come to life.
In no particular order, here are the things I focus on regarding dialogue:
- INTRODUCING NEW CHARACTERS
- INTRODUCING NEW CHARACTERS TO OLD CHARACTERS
- WHAT WE SAY IS RARELY WHAT WE THINK
- REPLACING EXPOSITION
- LESS IS MORE
- HUMOUR (… BUT WITH TENSION)
Hopefully, some of these tips will help you.
INTRODUCING NEW CHARACTERS
My characters are all deep thinkers. (Much the same way as I like to pretend that I am a deep thinker, and that most other people are, too … excluding bad drivers. They suck.) So much of the marrow to my novels occurs in a character’s head, their internal monologue running rampant. But how we as people are forced to react externally to stimuli is what defines us as much as what we are thinking, maybe even more so. The same is true for those who live on paper.
I may let a character’s thoughts paint their canvas early on, but I also try to put some dialogue in quickly, to let you learn a little bit more about them. Maybe how they see themselves is accurate. Maybe it’s not. And maybe there’s a reason for a discrepancy … if the characters are even aware of it.
When we first meet Kara Kinfolk early in ‘The Dim Realm, Volume I’, I reinforced a running theme with her – that others have more faith in her abilities than she does. She may talk herself up, she may always find the will to do things right, but others always see something in her that she does not. Even her old mentor, already proven to be as cranky a curmudgeon as they come, acknowledges this, albeit in his own ‘sparkling’ way:
“Enjoy?” Kara asked, tongue dancing neatly around a sputter. “How long have you known me? Have you ever been to Grober’s that early?”
“Known you? Too long!”
“Grump. And yet you still call me Charisma, as always,” Kara said with a grin, striding in from the door. She had rarely tried the anvil, but found it an absorbing sight.
Code corrected her. “No, Kara, I call you Little Charisma. Because you possess so little of it.”
“Really? Then why am I doing your bartering these days?”
Kara knew Ebin thought far more of her than that. When she was in her more melancholy moods, she realized how she was the one thing Ebin swore he would do right by in his life, and it mattered greatly to him. Payback for something in his past, maybe. Not that you could make the big ass admit it or anything.
Still, she was not going to let the smith off so easy. Kara had the small dwarf box propped under the crook of her arm, angled so that the smith could just see it. And while Ebin tried not to stare at it, he could think of little else.
“Everyone, Kara, even a yappy twig like you, has more charisma than me.”
INTRODUCING NEW CHARACTERS TO OLD
Introducing new characters to established ones is a lot of fun. You learn so much that characters, audience and even author alike might not have previously realized, and it is particularly rewarding to a writer. You creations have taken a life of their own and say things you might not have realized they would say until the very moment they were put to paper. (An old story I’ve heard – and which I believe to be true – is that the writers for the TV series Cheers had very little problem writing witty episode after witty episode, essentially because once those characters had voice – once they spoke to the writers – they could pretty much plop down any situation and those characters would find the words and humour for them.)
In my third book from ‘The Resurrection Tower’ series, I found this to be very true. Here, Kara Kinfolk meets the legendary monster slayer known as Dax, and they are oil and water, and therefore a lot of fun to write. More importantly, the words – and the constant pushing against one another – tell you all you need to know about these two without monologue-ing it to death:
Kara tried not to let it show that she in fact had not noticed. She knew Rinn did a lot of the guarding at night, sure, especially when Bander’s wounds had been at their worst and the dwarf needed extra rest, but not that Rinn might not sleep much at all. She felt like an ass. Why did she just assume things?
What she said was, “He’s going to get himself killed if he doesn’t find a way to rest and heal.”
“Every day is another day closer to death,” Dax replied, like that was supposed to mean something.
“Oh, I think I’ll call you Sunny.”
Once again, Kara earned the obtuse look, but it passed. “What about you, kid? Can’t sleep?”
“Let’s just say sleeping hasn’t exactly been a productive use of my time.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Dax replied with a considering nod, “you’re the dream sucker.”
“You must get a lot of repeat business here.”
“Just stay out of my head, kid.”
WHAT WE SAY IS RARELY WHAT WE THINK
What would the world be like if we all said what we thought all the time? I don’t know, but it would be a very interesting place. Also: I would probably never leave my house.
What we don’t say is arguably as important as what we do. When we modify our language – and when we don’t for effect – the intentions in behind such decisions are at least as important as the words themselves. Sometimes, we’re annoyed with someone else. Sometimes, we’re annoyed with ourselves. And sometimes we have a secret to keep or we have to keep the peace. Who knows? Yet no matter the situation, words being modified, or pulled out kicking and screaming, are more effective that straightforward text.
For example, sometimes you have to be dragged out of your melancholy, such as with the orc Rinn in ‘Unforgotten, Volume I’:
“You’re an orc, ain’t you?”
“Once again, my disguise as a large, unhappy tree has failed me.”
The old watchman sort of laughed, the kind where he was seeing if Rinn also laughed before getting too hearty.
“No disrespect, I just hate to assume. Never seen one of your kind, ‘cept from a distance. Spent a short time up near the Cordoran ruckus twenty years ago m’self, although I just got there for the end of it. Some of your kind was there, too, watchin’ their border. Got pretty heated between all our sides. Was pretty sure it was the beginnin’ of the end until cooler heads prevailed – by bein’ separated from their bodies, for the most part.”
Feeling brave, the old man proffered his hand, even managed to look Rinn in the eye. The young guards behind him kept drinking their coffee, looking elsewhere, probably wondering which of them would take charge once the big green monster ate their senior officer.
“Name’s Ober. Ober Malin.”
“Cro-Rinn. Am I going to cause you trouble by being up here, Ober?” He shook the old man’s hand.
Now Ober laughed without hesitance. “Heh! Nothin’ I can’t handle. B’sides, you’re a million feet tall, two million wide, an’ scary as shit. If a fellow that looks like you can come out of Dax’s with your head and arms still attached, well, that’s good enough for me.”
“Good to know.” Apparently, Bone Yard had some pull around here.
The orc leaned forward on the wall, taking a clear look out while also taking a bit of weight off his bad leg, wishing that his recently skewered shoulder were any better. The wind took the opportunity to try to freeze him a little more. He wished it luck. He wasn’t that far gone.
“Here,” Ober said. He had gone back to the stove and gotten Rinn a fresh cup of coffee.
Stated Rinn, automatically taking the cup, “I don’t feel cold the way you do.”
“So, you’re sayin’ orcs don’t like coffee?”
Rinn sighed. “I love coffee. I just try to say one short-sightedly abrasive thing per day without thinking. You don’t keep skills sharp if you don’t practice them, Ober.”
“Makin’ up for yesterday?” Ober laughed, meanwhile clapping one of the young lads who had wandered too close on the shoulder. The lad jumped, having been hoping not to be noticed. (Not that there was any problem. Heck, no. Everything was fine, everything was cool.)
“No. This was for today. With that out of the way, I now have a fresh start.”
I am a long-winded, verbose writer. You’ve probably figured that out already from this blog alone. I know I will only “correct” that so much moving forward in my career. But when they say a picture is worth a thousand words, often times the same goes for a little well placed dialogue. Going back to Kara and Dax in ‘Unforgotten,Volume I’ – and having to deal with the reality of a later book in a series needing to reacquaint readers 750,000 words in with certain facts about plot and character – a little back-and-forth can cover a lot of it. The spirit is an important as the meat. It cannot always replace exposition, no, but it can certainly reduce it, saving it for when it’s truly needed, and keeping the book moving:
“You want to know what I bring to the table, Dax? Fine. I speak to dead people who don’t really tell me anything! I have a knife that has to do my fighting for me! I have magic that only opens locks to places I don’t want to go. And I recruit folks by the power of my amazing ability to be a nuisance unless they do.”
Another drink, and she finished her smoke. Why did she feel like crying?
“I wish I had more for you, old man.”
Kara wiped at her eyes before they could get going, then huffed a laugh while she grabbed a second smoke. Dax produced a flame before she was even ready. Son of a bitch. But she lit her smoke from his match.
“So why am I so important?” Kara continued, exasperated. She was suddenly glad the tavern was empty. Empty except for her and what was obviously a cold-hearted killer, and when he showed some inkling of compassion, that somehow made it worse. “I have no idea why the Reaver focused on me. Nothing that feels right.”
Dax refilled her rapidly emptying mug, even took one for himself. But just the one. And he sipped.
“Ah, yes, this Reaver of yours,” he said, nodding as if there was a second commentary running along in his mind at the same time. “There’s just one thing that gets in my craw…”
“Just one?” Kara tried to joke.
“Something that doesn’t add up about your story.”
Dax gave her a condescending look. Kara took it as a compliment that he took a bigger sip of ale than previously. Baby steps.
LESS IS MORE
If there’s one thing you take out of this (assuming you’re still reading) it’s this – less is more. Funny coming from a windbag like me, but it’s true, even when you have a lot to say, and a lot of characters who have a lot to say.
Less is more. It’s true on stage, and is an actor’s mantra. It’s true in life. And it is certainly true in books. I mentioned replacing exposition above, which comes from this idea, but my recommendation is that you should apply it to everything where possible. Strive for the sub-text. Take it as far as it will go.
The things left unsaid are as important as those said. And to use another acting mantra – sometimes it is the spaces between lines, between the beats, that tell the true tale. I aimed for this when Tal Stormgren spoke to his former love, Shay Lor, through a magic crystal that let them speak despite the physical gulf in ‘The Dim Realm, Volume I’:
The wind’s song left him. It was suddenly very quiet in the Town Square. The druid of stone was all there was to comfort him, and it was not nearly enough. Looking down, Stormgren saw that the sunstone’s magic was fading. It would need to be charged again by day. And if he let it fade too far, one bright day might not be enough.
“There’s a loneliness in being lost,” Tal uttered. Strangely, he found strength in that, false or not. “But there’s a kind of loneliness that you choose. One where you find yourself.”
“We will get through this. You know I am always close through the sunstone. As close as I can be.”
As close as I can be. He had heard those words before from her, in a much different time.
“Tal,” Shayanna Lor said in the here and now, “be careful.”
He barely heard it.
Tal had already closed his hand over the sunstone. She was gone. The Waterguard ranger hung the leather band back around his neck, hiding the crystal away like he hid a great many things.
For the first time in a long while, Tal Stormgren felt alone. Surrounded by a town full of more people than he had seen in weeks, yet never had he felt more isolated.
HUMOUR (… BUT WITH TENSION)
And if I can finish up with some parting advice – make dialogue fun when you can. People want to like one another. That’s true for those on the page as well. They want to have a reason to be with one another, and enjoyment should come from this. Granted, it can also be used to contrast quite effectively the less enjoyable words that will come from conflict, but don’t let that take away from the fun parts. Let there be method to your madness.
For me, dialogue is often my chance to inject humour (whether it’s always appropriate humour would be a whole other blog entry) into what can often be dark material.
When I first realized that ‘The Dim Realm’ would be split into two volumes, I was working at setting up not only some tense cliff-hangers to hopefully make people want to read the second part, but I also wanted them to be enjoying themselves, too:
Rosen paused. He heard nothing else, but didn’t relent. He waited several moments before turning some of his attention away from the wall.
“I’m nervous. Everything’s barmy, Gilders. After everything that’s gone on today, we should be nervous. And I know you don’t believe me, but there was even an orc in the room, I tell you!”
“Yes, that is what I saw!”
“In the commander’s room.”
“Yes, damn it, Ham, an orc in the commander’s room.”
“Drinking wine.” Gilders still hadn’t reached for his halberd.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that!”
“Why not?” Gilders asked him. “You’re the one that’s been drinking wine.”
“But nothing. Calm your knickers down, Egg. I trust the commander. And so should you.”
“So, in other words, you don’t trust me,” sighed Rosen, rather than ask. It struck him as he said it that he hoped he wasn’t pouting. When he had pouted as a kid, Ham would sit on him until he stopped. And Gilders had always been a Big Slice.
“I do trust you, Egg. When you’re sober. Which must not be now.”
“You bleeding idiot,” said Rosen, but he was already giving up. “The orc went out the front door with the Waterguard Ranger! Bigger than life! Hells, bigger than you! How could you possibly miss that?”
“Possibly because there was no orc?” Gilders gave him a wink.
“But there was, and I don’t understand.”
“Perhaps your imaginary friend will come back to explain himself, and-”
…knock knock knock…
“Hold on,” said big Ham Gilders this time. “That was near the door.”
The same sort of thing arose in ‘The Dim Realm, Volume II’, a segment which I think encompasses everything I have mentioned in the all the points above. There are times when you can say so much about character with just one line.
In this example, Tal Stormgren is playing for time – the stakes and tension are being raised for the beginning of the end – and he is the most arch-typical of the protagonists in this first stage of the fantasy yarn – but he also loves to be an ass to incite the antagonists. He is fearless. He wants his enemies to make a mistake. But, quite simply, he’s also rather capable of being said ass because that’s just who he is when push comes to shove. He is annoyed by the malicious, from petty charlatans to horrifying deathlords. They are an affront to him and it shows.
You want there to be subtleties. You don’t have to spell everything out. When you can do that, you’re in a groove.
And, sometimes, one line – one that should be a throwaway – pops up from nowhere in a certain situation that sums everything up. The more of this you can do, the more effective your dialogue will be, and the more clear your character’s intentions will become. And the longer you write, the more you yourself as an author finds your voice, the frequency of such dialogue will increase. They are the gold you are mining for. They are not throwaway lines, nor should they be treated as such:
The King’s Men closed in, snarls worn on their faces. Their skin hung like drapes over wounds that bled no more. Their hatred for living roiled with their desire to eat living flesh. Their mouths were torn with hunger. They would give in with glee, given chance. This was the curse of unlife. The King’s Men could not yet set foot upon the dais, but they were close now. Allowed in the Saint’s Hall they might be, but to break Aaranoth’s protections, that was something else altogether. To attempt to reach any further caused them some fear, or pain, or emptiness that still registered within the bleakness of who they had once been.
The candles dipped lower, lower.
Soon, so soon, the King’s Men knew they would reach the tender flesh. Ah, the sweet taste of tender flesh.
How they could taste it. It overrode almost everything else.
“Kal-saur ammon nil fal,” hissed one knight. It echoed throughout the high chamber.
The ranger concentrated solely on the Acolyte. His comrades would have to do the rest of the heavy lifting until the hells broke loose.
“So, the name ‘Arrow’s Flight’,” Tal asked the Acolyte, just like it was a sunny day at the park, and they were old men plunked down on a bench to feed the ducks. “Is that your sense of humour, considering how Hurin was supposed to take Surak down?”
“Hardly,” answered the Acolyte, his fleshless face coursing with blood and tissue that the undead apparently wanted no part of. “Is that all you have to ask me as you wait out your last gasp?”
“Look, if you don’t know,” sighed Tal, “just say so.”
The Acolyte regarded the ranger without moving. If he had still possessed lips, they would have been thin, bloodless. But he didn’t, and it was amazing he could still make words, which Tal thought both an odd use of magic and a reflection on his own oddity that he had bothered noticing.
Trust in yourself. Trust in your characters. And, most importantly, trust in your readers. Subtlety is good.
Thanks for reading my blog post. I hope I’ve entertained, or at least provided some food for thought.