Erin M. Evans on Writing Dialogue to Die For
Dialogue is one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal. It’s totally immersive, it’s evocative of character and place, and it can add layers of tension and nuance like nobody’s business. Not to mention, it’s eminently quotable. All this, and it seems so approachable! I mean, we almost all talk in one fashion or another, right? So clearly, we should all be masters of The Dialogue. But dialogue is deceptive tricky—and it takes a clever author to work it to its best effect.
One of those authors is Erin M. Evans. When I first read her book Lesser Evils, I was immediately struck by the dialogue. It was just so effortlessly natural. And the characters didn’t all sound alike, either. It was one of those rare stories in which you could really figure out what each individual character would say in any given situation, and how they would say it. Not only that, but you wanted to repeat it to your friends later. Needless to say, I enjoyed the dialogue so much, that in my 2012 Five Books for Writers column two weeks ago, I picked it as my favorite book for studying the subject.
So, you can imagine how pleased I was when Erin agreed to do an interview on how she gets those characters to speak! Because while you can figure out a lot from reading Lesser Evils and studying it, the chance to learn techniques from the author herself cannot be beat.
Susan: What are the goals of dialogue?
Erin: Dialogue is one of the strongest pillars of storytelling. It’s immediate and immersive. It can carry a lot of details about characters and plot and setting without being too obvious about it. It can be used to adjust the pace of your story, or land a beat you might otherwise miss.
Susan: How do you make dialogue compelling?
Erin: I think you start by listening to a lot of people talk (real people! Not TV or movie people!). The best thing you can do is get a feel for the cadence of voices, the word choice people use when they’re feeling a certain way, the way they convey information—especially when there are other factors at play. Like someone eavesdropping on them! Think about why people say what they say the way they say it. I think reading or listening to great dialogue is definitely helpful too, but without that “primary source” you’re echoing something that’s already been distilled. It can end up sounding stiff or goofy.
Second, you learn to pare what your characters are saying down to what’s absolutely their true voice. A lot of real-world dialogue is flabby with meaningless words, bits and pieces we say to ease conversation. Your characters might say things like “Hi.” “Hi.” “How’s it going?” “Fine, and yourself?” “Fine”—but we don’t need to read that. Get to what matters.
Last, know your characters. Know what they’re saying, but also what they’re not saying, what they wish they could say, and what they don’t know they wish they could say. And know the differences between those things.
Susan: How do you develop strong and unique voices for your characters—and then keep them consistent throughout the book?
Erin: It helps to know the characters really well. Give them clear wants and goals, and put them into various levels of conflict with the other characters. When everyone’s thinking something they’re not saying, it steers your dialogue really nicely.
In Lesser Evils , there’s a character called Dahl Peredur. Dahl is the kind of guy who’s struggling a lot with his sense of self. He’s really smart—usually the smartest guy in the room—but he’s joined the Harpers and he feels like they’re treating him like he can’t wipe his own ass. So when he talks to them, he’s proud and he’s saying things in a way to convince them he’s someone worth having. He gets into an argument with the main character Farideh early, and they kind of clash through most of the book. He’s always ready for her to tell him she thinks he’s an idiot, and he’s really prickly even when they’re being fairly cordial. When he’s introduced to a new character, he’s going to be very guarded, waiting to see if she’s someone he has to be tense around too.
Susan: People either love them or hate them: what is your stance on variant dialogue tags? Is “said” dead?
Erin: Said’s not dead, but I don’t think we should rule out all variant dialogue tags either. In a perfect world, all the characters have such unique voices and lines of dialogue that we don’t even need tags, but that’s just not how things shake out. Sometimes the line you need is just not special enough, and it needs that “said.” And sometimes the line is something like “Yes” and you need a little more description—an adverb, a variant tag, a bit of non-verbal action. The trick is to know what fits the flow best and only rely on those things when you can’t make the dialogue do the work.
Erin: The hardest characters to write dialogue for are the ones who are hiding something and the ones who you’re fighting to keep fresh. In both cases, I think that’s because those are the characters who—wait for it—you don't know as well. You have to work your way around and find the right angle to approach them from, the one that makes them open up just enough or act in a way that doesn't drag them down into a trope you're avoiding. This sort of character can need a few rewrites to get right, but they're always worth it.
Susan: Which were the most fun to write dialogue for?
Erin: I love writing Havilar’s dialogue. She’s the twin sister of Farideh, the main character, and she’s a little silly. She’s the sort of girl most people think is stupid, but she’s really just looking at everything a bit askew. And she’s a little gullible, so she tends to repeat things she’s heard and remembered wrong. (There’s a scene where the characters are attacked by a hydra, and Havilar insists they have to burn the heads, because everyone knows every head will grow into a new hydra.) She’s also fun, because she isn’t very self-aware, so what she thinks she wants and needs isn’t necessarily what she really wants and needs, and all those layers can create some interesting nuances when it comes to what she says.
Susan: People always tell us to get information across through dialogue—but then get mad when we info-dump. How can we avoid info-dumping and yet get that vital information across?
Erin: I’m going to say this a lot: Know your characters. They’re not going to tell each other about the things they both know, but they are going to tell each other about what they don’t both know, right? So new details can do the job, or even better, their individual experiences. Early in Lesser Evils, there’s a scene where Brin, a young man from a noble family in Cormyr, is talking to his cousin, Constancia, about why he ran away and why he’s not coming back. I needed to convey the information about their family and their history, but neither of them is going to run down that information, because they already know it. They might however talk about the ramifications of Brin fleeing, and by talking about that, you can imply the shape of their family’s social standing. Brin might tell Constancia what he’s afraid will happen if he stays, and thereby give you more information about what’s already happened. The “shape” of those facts and smaller revelations can imply what fits between them.
“Hills Like White Elephants” is kind of the classic example of this—the characters aren’t talking about what they’re thinking about, and it’s stronger for it. All the awkwardness and tension creates the shape of the conflict.
Susan: How do you keep dialogue from turning your characters into talking heads?
Erin: Make what they’re saying matter in more than one way. Go back and look at every line—does it shift your conflict? Does it build your character in a new way? Does it strengthen the story? Or is it just funny or just a reminder that this character is standing there? Just a chance for you to slip a bit of world-building in or narrate the plot? Fictional people ought to talk when they have something to say, not just to fill the page.
Susan: How can you use slang and cursing in dialogue without making it sound like you’re trying too hard?
Erin: Cursing and slang are things you have to develop an ear for. Sometimes I read something and think, “I suspect this person thinks cursing is a sign you are stupid,” or “This person definitely corrects other people’s spoken grammar.” But if you want to sound natural when you use them in your story, you have to be open to people speaking that way. Dialogue is about emotion first—it pays to not be a prescriptivist here. And cursing is the most purely emotional kind of dialogue. Unless you’re writing a character you want to sound like a twelve-year-old trying out dirty words for shock value, you really want to feel out the proper beat for throwing down a four-letter-flag. Slang is similar—you need to think about why the slang exists and why someone would use it. Slang that obfuscates something you’re trying to convey to the reader is going to make for a difficult road.
Susan: Character catchphrases: dialogue do or dialogue don’t?
Erin: I think there’s a fine—and important!—line between catchphrases and idiosyncrasies. If by “catchphrase” we mean a phrase the character always utters as a sort of marker, I don’t care for catchphrases. They feel cartoony to me. That said, I think we all do have a tendency to repeat phrases as we speak, although with more variation and less frequency. In the case of my books, that usually means cursing. The half-devil Farideh has a pact with isn’t going to curse like the twin daughters of a dragonborn soldier, who won’t curse like a Cormyrean nobleman or a fallen paladin of Oghma. For the sake of the reader, it’s helpful if that cursing varies a little, but not too much. And so I think the same rules apply here—follow the flow, find the high emotional points, know your characters and say what they’d say.
Susan: How should the narrative voice—and character thoughts—interact with dialogue?
Erin: I like writing with a really tight, limited third. That means that you only see what the point of view (POV) character is seeing, and you get a fair amount of their internal thoughts. I’m also a big proponent of tailoring your narrative voice to the character whose POV you’re in—if you need a metaphor, it’s better to have your poor, isolated farmer character say something is “sharp as a sickle” than “sharp as the horn of a narwhal” so it’s going to support your POV and your dialogue better if your narrator does that too.
Internal thought can be really handy for conveying what your character needs to say, but absolutely would not say. That said, I think it’s important to leave that implied space where possible. If the readers can figure it out for themselves, let them!
Susan: What’s the trickiest part about writing dialogue?
Erin: Scenes where you have maybe a few too many people involved are pretty brutal. In Lesser Evils, there’s a scene where the entire expedition of eight people has discovered they’re up against more than they realized. Half of them want to do one thing, half want to do another. There are more than a few interpersonal conflicts at play, and all of this is pressing on the characters, driving them to speak. But the reader’s experience would be muddied if they all just started shouting. In this case, I went through and wrote several versions, starting with just the dialogue (tagged with initials) stripped down to what each speaker’s feeling. Really terrible “I am mad at you for lying” “Are you freaking kidding me!??!” kind of stuff. That let me pick out who really had the most to get off their chest in that moment, and who would provoke them best—and who could keep their thoughts to themselves until later. A second rewrite helped phrase things the way the characters speak, and then I could build the scene around that. But when the needs of the story force a complicated conversation, sometimes you have to get down to the bones of the book before you can proceed.
Susan: What’s the best part about writing dialogue?
Erin: Honestly, it’s just fun! But also, I find that dialogue is what sticks with readers, at least in my case. I love it when people quote my characters' dialogue—it means that’s how they got hooked by the story.
Susan: How does dialogue for fiction differ from dialogue for other mediums?
Erin: I wrote a little quest dialogue for the MMORPG, TERA; specifically the character Fraya’s lines. The biggest difference there is that you don’t get the support of surrounding description or an actor’s expression. The dialogue must carry anything you want to convey. And it has to be short. So you have to be really thoughtful about how you phrase things and what words you choose to pack the most punch. That’s still a good skill to learn.
Susan: How do you write clever or witty dialogue, and how can you keep it from breaking the tension?
Erin: I think the trick with witty dialogue is to be careful where you use it and to make sure the reader gets a peek at what’s behind it. A character like Lorcan, the half-devil Farideh has a pact with, drops a lot of slick lines, but you’ve also seen that he’s someone who’s very careful about what he says because in the Nine Hells, the wrong words can get you killed—or worse. And sometimes, like when everything’s hitting the fan, he is just as frantic and un-witty as the rest of us. I think that makes his dialogue feel more natural—you can believe in someone who says all the right things most of the time, but it’s a lot harder to believe in all of the time.
As for breaking tension, this is a pet peeve of mine when reading. Nothing throws me from the story like an ill-placed wisecrack. It reads like the author is speaking when someone has to throw out a joke in the middle of a tense fight scene (assuming we’re not talking about comedy). So first, really know your characters. Have them say what they would say in that situation, not what you wish you could say. Second, be aware of your narrative distance. If your character would say something snarky, but you want to create the kind of tension that draws your reader into the scene, you need to make it clear that the character’s snarking as a defense mechanism or a distraction or that they have missed the point. If they’re snarky because this tense situation ain’t no thang, then the reader doesn’t worry, doesn’t invest. You can do that too, but be aware that you’re not getting the same effect as you would without that line.
Susan: Any tips for new writers who want to practice their dialogue skills?
Erin: Read your dialogue out loud. If you do nothing else, do this. Read all of your story out loud, but especially the dialogue. There’s no better way to pick out what falls flat, what cannot be uttered, and what doesn’t sound genuine than hearing it come out of your own mouth. If you do it in front of someone else, even better. They will tell you when you sound like a goof.
Don’t be afraid of revising. Sometimes the difference between dialogue you love and dialogue that’s just there is remembering the word you really meant, or realizing your character’s true voice.
Erin M. Evans is the author of The God Catcher, Brimstone Angels, Brimstone Angels: Lesser Evils, and the forthcoming The Adversary. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in Anthropology--a course of study aimed at fieldwork, but it works well for fleshing out fantasy cultures (which gets fewer botflies in her socks). She lives in Seattle with her husband and son. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and slushlush.com.