63

I noticed a problem I have in my fictional writing. My dialogues quickly turn into interrogations. Here is an exaggerated example.

"How did you do it?" he asked.

"..."

"Will it kill us all?"

"..."

"What about your family?"

"..."

I can spruce it up, of course. I can add some fillers so it feels more like questioner also contributes something to the conversation besides the questions. Still, at the core, it doesn't feel natural. It gets more awful when the answerer starts to ask questions too.

I focus on the short stories right now. In addition to dialogues, I do have action and first-person narration (which I see as an internal form of dialogue).

I think I'm doing Q&A instead of "natural dialogue" because I box my self into certain word count and want to explain all I need to explain within that word limit. Q&A does the job but feels unnatural.

What makes the dialogue natural? Or what makes the dialog "flow" naturally?

Sorry, if my question is a bit vague. It's like phrasal verbs. You can't memorize them all but after hearing them for 10 years you can with high accuracy detect the one that was used incorrectly in a given context. I can hear that my dialogue is not natural but don't know how to fix it. Are there any tricks-of-the-trade that can help me? Or is it just a matter of practice, practice and more practice?

Thanks

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    Oooh, fantastic question :) And, welcome (back?) to the site! :D – Standback Dec 17 '18 at 16:33
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    as long as the reader is dying to know the answers, I don't see a problem – Andrey Dec 17 '18 at 16:51
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    From the 'Related questions' - not a duplicate but linking because you might find it helpful: writing.stackexchange.com/questions/34204/… – CompuChip Dec 17 '18 at 17:59
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    Good questions! I've seen this pitfall often in books and even more in RPG games. When done correctly it's not too noticeable, but if improperly handled it ruins a good part of an otherwise solid story. – Mast Dec 18 '18 at 19:05
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    @CompuChip thank you for the link. It has lots of good info too. – user18993 Dec 18 '18 at 19:17
77

OK. This will be like all the other things we are learning. You fill your tool box with every tool you can find, and use all of them. In this case you are collecting tools to make your dialog sound natural.

We are trying to reveal information to the reader, and you say you are using interrogation. Right, this is not natural.

  1. Part of natural dialog is leapfrogging over an answer, so that's one tool you can add to the toolbox.

    Bad dialog:

    "Why are you wearing that?"

    "I'm wearing it because I want to."

    Well, duh.

    Less bad:

    "Why are you wearing that?"

    "Shut up."

    This can have the bonus of getting more information to the reader—because the reader fills in the blanks. In terms of a short word count, you might want to look at leapfrogging and trusting the reader.

  2. Part of natural dialog is what is thought, instead of what is said out loud. We do a lot of thinking when we are talking.

    "Why are you wearing that?" They were going to a funeral for God's sake. It shouldn't come as a surprise to her anymore; he always dressed inappropriately. Sometimes she thought he did it just to annoy her.

    "Listen up. There's no dress code, and you're not my mother."

    A lot of times the question and the answer do not match up directly. If the answer in your interrogations is the information your readers actually need, then you might tweak the questions so that the exchange is not too on-the-nose. Above, maybe what the reader needs to know (you know what the reader needs to know) is that there is no dress code wherever they are going. But it would be too on-the-nose to have someone say "Is there a dress code?" "No."

    You can slip different, disconnected bits of information to the reader through Qs and As in this way.

  3. Part of natural dialog is not to ask questions but to make observations.

    "Spandex. Interesting choice for a funeral." It shouldn't come as a surprise to her anymore; he always dressed inappropriately. Sometimes she thought he did it just to annoy her.

    He laughed.

  4. And you can just cut the dialog altogether.

    He was in spandex. Of all the things he could have chosen, he decided spandex was what he'd wear to her mother's funeral. It shouldn't come as a surprise to her anymore; he always dressed inappropriately. Sometimes she thought he did it just to annoy her.

    There's lots of tricks... You can add physical gestures to your characters, and so on, nonverbal communication. Your goal is to paint a scene and deliver information leaving the reader wanting more.

Listen to dialog while you are out. Natural dialog is not a logic stream. It is conveyance of information, power struggles, rife with emotion, short phrases, sentence fragments, often selfish. Or, loving kindness, a compassionate ear, gentle. Sometimes dialog is mindless blather, which can be amusing or tiring. Sometimes it is a person sharing an anecdote with other people.

In terms of other tools to get information across, you can use a found diary or a hacked phone. You can use a drunk character who reveals far more than they should. You can create an emotional and vulnerable moment where a character shares information without being asked.

Collect your tools, go through each section of your manuscript that feels off, and find a different way to convey the information your reader needs.

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    +1: Though I find "It is conveyance of information, power struggles, rife with emotion, (...) often selfish." sounds a bit negative to me. A lot of dialogues I'm involved in are less about power struggles and selfishness (though it is very self-centered) and often have the objective of comforting, helping with suggestions and/or giving someone a different view of a situation, sharing a problem either for venting purposes or to get ideas to fix it, cheering someone up. Depending on what characters are doing the talking, a dialogue can have more negative or more positive aims. – Sara Costa Dec 17 '18 at 19:40
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    Yeah, misanthrope! – elliot svensson Dec 18 '18 at 15:01
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    @SaraCosta That's probably a subjective assessment, I find it makes it sound fun, adventurous colourful in contrast to a cold robotical exchange of logical information - which I still often would prefer^^. To me that sentence sounds almost romantic. Particularly the "selfish" I find carries the essence of that sentence, in that, in contrast to a book written by one writer meaning to tell us some coherent story, natural language is driven by individual motivations all mixed together. And this is what a writer needs to simulate - reduced to what he needs for his communication desire. – Darkwing Dec 18 '18 at 17:17
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    Nice. I have so much to learn. I started a story for NaNoWriMo and it will benefit greatly from this tiny nugget of knowledge! It sure would be nice to have a collection of these in a book... – CramerTV Dec 18 '18 at 19:09
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    @CramerTV Better in the end (at least for developing your own voice) to collect your own tips in a file somewhere. Especially from writers you admire... And--Practice. – DPT Dec 19 '18 at 1:02
15

OK, I'm going to rephrase your question a little. Your problem is this: You have information to impart, which is (a) interesting and (b) important. However, the act of imparting that information is neither interesting nor important.

I hope that sounds about right to you. And I think you'll find this way of phrasing the problem also hints and some potential solutions.

Make the scene important

If you don't have a good reason why the scene of two people talking is important -- consider making one up. Examples off-hand:

  • Your protagonist is trying impress the other character, and win their favor.
  • Your protagonist hates the other character, and is just looking for a fight.
  • The other character's story is a perfect echo of something that happened to your protagonist, so the protagonist has a bunch of internal reactions to almost every detail.

Make the scene interesting

A dull infodump can be livened up if the interaction between the characters is interesting, off-kilter, or fun. If the other character is memorable, it'll feel like a scene, not an interrogation.

  • Think of the Oracle in The Matrix. She just tells Neo plot information -- but she has fantastic style and personality; so the scene is fun and memorable.

Spotlight the information, not the conversation

If the problem is that imparting the information is kind of dull, then... maybe we don't actually need that part? Like, at all?

Maybe you can skip the conversation -- and just show the reader what you had intended to tell.

You can change point-of-views, just for the story being told, and let the second character narrate that bit -- instead of a Q&A, you get a vivid, straightforward account.

You may even conclude that your book needs more POV characters. Or that you need to position your protagonist where they can see the important part, experience it for themselves, instead of just hearing about it from somebody else.


So: A lot of dialogue can be improved, not by dialogue techniques at all -- but simply by building your piece to avoid having long Q&A sessions being necessary :)

Hope this helps; all the best!

13

Dialogue becomes natural when it involves the characters. Get into their minds, have them need to ask and then ask in a way that that character would. The reply could be almost anything as it could come from shock, misunderstanding, anger etc.

Know who says each line and why, who replies, how and why and it will feel more natural. Conversations often take on a life of their own and digress - even disappearing down the occasional rabbit hole.

Each character has a voice, a style and a way of thinking that will colour their speech.

Interrogation is a situation where power is in one character and the intent is purely to wrest information from someone who is in their power and has no real alternative. The only defences of the questioned are deflection and deception.

Conversations have give and take, both characters in a similar position and the exchange is voluntary.

Taking your examples as a starting point, it can go like this:

“How did you do it?”

“What? I’ve done a few things. Be specific.”

“This painting, the eyes are following me. I can’t look away without feeling watched.”

“Oh, that. It is difficult to explain, but takes careful placement of all elements. Never mind, can’t really explain. Art is a frog you want to dissect - you might learn but it won’t survive.”

“I need to know.”

“No, you want to understand, that is different. Return when you need to understand.”

Or

“Will it kill us all?”

“You have no concept of The Laws of Physics, do you?”

“How did you do it?”

“Rather well, I think. It might even work better than expected.”

“What about your family?”

“My family, they are my inspiration. You killed them last year - this is the anniversary of their slaughter.”

“The marketplace in Kabul?”

“Yes.”

“Damn.”

“Yes, we are probably both damned. Now, you were going to get me a coffee.”

Conversations go where they go, interrogations have more structure but still have a certain fluidity to them. Understand your characters and the conversations will flow. Allow them to lie, exaggerate and otherwise act like people in a given situation.

Sometimes a conversation is about something entirely different for both parties and can be a meandering but intriguing thing with its own purpose. Your word count might be constricting your dialogue. Ease your restrictions and see what happens.

8

Your characters are too nice.

You can also argue, disagree (politely, rudely, friendly-rudely). You can misunderstand. You can interrupt. You can complain and ask them to get to the point. You can have the speaker fail to remember something, say something false and then correct themselves, forget the point of what they were saying and fail to answer a question, or decide they don't want to tell the listener something after all.

The listener, instead of being restricted to questions, can do what real people do: What they heard reminds them of something else, and they talk about that. "I saw that almost that same thing in Chicago, it was funny as hell. These two guys ..." And off into a story. This approach is suitable for people traveling, with nothing to do but talk. In other words, make it longer.

I think the mistake you are making is that you are trying to turn an information dump into a conversation instead, but it is just a soliloquy information dump (or history dump) from ONE character, with a prop character that is only there to prompt the next long chunk of soliloquy.

The solution is to ditch the soliloquy altogether, or if it is necessary, make it longer so the conversation develops both characters.

Remember, the reason we avoid information dumps (in exposition or dialog) is they are taxing on the reader's memory. They ask the reader to memorize a lot of stuff, and that takes them out of the story and into doing their homework.

It is seldom important for the reader to understand all at once why your character is the way they are. You need to try and engineer your story and conversation so this kind of "backstory" is not told in a big block, but in a paragraph, and preferably as an explanation for some action or decision being taken right now. If the back story never influences any action or decision, then it probably isn't important. If it does, the time to reveal it depends on how unusual it is; the less unusual, the closer the reveal can be to the decision, and vice versa. For example, if you are turning down the shrimp because shrimp gave you food poisoning as a kid, you can do that at the point of the decision.

A real conversation is not an interrogation (as you know). Bob says something. That makes Charlie think of something to talk about. That makes Bob think of something to talk about, and the conversation meanders around.

The replies are often questions IRL, but these are usually backward looking, to clarify something said, or get more information on something mentioned or claimed, they are usually NOT forward looking to lead the speaker into something entirely new.

You can make a back-and-forth conversation without any questions, and that is one way to avoid the interrogation flavor.

7

I know I'm burning over ground some of the others have at least implicitly touched on, but let me make this explicit:

People (usually) don't talk for an audience's sake

Your characters must talk to each other for reasons people would talk to other people. It will sound unnatural otherwise. As an author, you have to tweak that dialogue so the important things happen to be explicit enough for the reader to understand - but for dialogue to sound natural, there has to be a feeling of in-story motives for whatever is said.

In the rare case people are talking to be overheard, then clumsy, spelled-out dialogue will fit perfectly into the story.

To borrow Shawn's illustration:

BOBBY: Mom, I know a magician's not supposed to reveal--

PEGGY: Here's how I did it...

Just from that little snippet, without any understanding of the context, I can tell that Bobby is dying to know the secret. And Peggy is bursting to tell how she pulled a trick off. The in-story motives conveniently line up with the author's out-of-story motive to explain what happened.

Hermione, in Harry Potter, was a great exposition device, not only because she was "muggle-born", so everything was new to her... She also had that real, familiar personality where she felt compelled to explain things in detail. Her in-story motive lined up with Rowling's exposition motive.

What makes your characters characters (and what makes their dialogue sound more natural) is that you believe they're choosing to do what they're doing.

7

DPT's and Rasdashan's answers offer good advice. I will just add that its important to remember that most conversations are Q&A sessions (essentially). When you talk with someone, you want to ask them something. Even when you just want to tell them something, you generally expect some sort of reply. In return, they ask or tell you something. That's the back and forth nature of conversations.

The only difference between an interrogation and a conversation is that only one person "asks" during an interrogation. To avoid that, you can try the techniques that DPT and Rasdashan suggest.

You can also try to make sure that one character doesn't have all the answers. So then, when they talk, you are forced to go back and forth, resulting in a more natural conversation. This will improve your story-line too, I think.

3

Here's yet another tip: Answer the question before anyone asks.

"Don't give me that look. I'm wearing this because I have a performance right after the funeral and I don't have time to change."

Or this exchange from King of the Hill, after Peggy swindled a swindler:

BOBBY: Mom, I know a magician's not supposed to reveal --

PEGGY: Here's how I did it...

3

I'm somewhat surprised nobody has mentioned yet-another-trick that works well: break the dialogue with descriptions, actions or anything else that could be appropriate.

"How did you do it?" he asked.

"..."

"Will it kill us all?"

"..."

"What about your family?"

"..."

Would turn into:

"How did you do it?" she asked, scratching her head.

"...", Bob said. He was getting this question a lot lately.

"Will it kill us all?", Alice followed-up.

"...", although he had his doubts about it himself. Something about this situation stinks.

"What about your family?" She recalled losing her own family just weeks ago.

"..."

This is of-course a poor example, but I think it gets the point across. It works even better if you put some of the actions at the front of the paragraph, before your character speaks instead of after. In essence, you're wrapping the dialogue into a proper scene.

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