We’re now getting into an area where there are few clear rules, only guidelines. But it’s time to address how to do dialogue.
Years ago, in a fiction writing seminar that I took from a moderately famous author, I got a comment back on one of my stories to the effect that, though he thought it was “very good,” it suffered, among other things, from “an over reliance on dialogue at the expense of scene description,” a comment he immediately qualified with a parenthetical: “(though of course there are no rules and a piece can consist entirely of dialogue).”
I can quote these twenty-plus-year-old comments exactly because they’ve stuck with me ever since. What they’ve meant to me can be drawn, in part, from the fact that the very next story I turned in, in fact consisted entirely of dialogue. (His thoughts: “It works, but in a limited way, like a joke that waits for its punch line.”)
What are we to take from this? Dialogue is tricky.
There are really only two absolute, ironclad, inalterable rules when it comes to dialogue:
- You should have a specific goal in mind every time one of your characters opens his or her mouth.
- Your characters must sound like real people.
My guess is that the second rule is more of a problem for most writers than the first. So we’ll address these in reverse order.
One of the biggest hallmarks of Erotica That Sucks is bad dialogue. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started something that seems interesting, gotten to a stretch of dialogue, and just thought to myself: This is not how real people talk.
The root of bad dialogue, at least in erotica, tends to be the same as the root of bad characterization. It’s a desire to serve fetish before writing. Dialogue is just seen as a tool to serve arousal and hit all of the tropes of the particular genre.
Some people, as I’ve said before, don’t care about this. They enjoy silly, contrived, stilted dialogue just as long as the characters are yelling things the stereotypes in that genre are supposed to. This sort of stuff is common in large part because it’s easy. Rather than think about what these characters really might say, were they real people in this actual situation, the writer stuffs a lot of words in their mouths lest they derail the train speeding toward fulfillment.
Me, I need more than this. It isn’t that I have a problem with various types of genres, I don’t. I enjoy reaching outside the sort of stuff I’ve enjoyed in the past. I love encountering talented new writers. Seriously, this is one of the great joys of reading for me. But all of you, I’m begging you: Don’t be lazy.
You probably know where you want to end up when you start a piece of erotica. I do the same thing. But don’t rush it. Come up with some realistic characters. Breath some life into them. Then let them get there on their own. Rather than stuffing words in their mouths, listen to them. If you’ve done your job up to this point, you have some real people in your head who want out. Let those people talk. Don’t do the talking for them.
I will be the first to admit this isn’t easy. It takes practice and patience. It requires slowing down enough to prevent your desire to get to the money shot from overrunning everything else. But think how much hotter the payoff will be if you can arrive there with some real, living people instead of department store mannequins.
Now, if you suffer from the first problem, as I do, it may seem to be a problem worth having. In some respects, it is. If your characters never seem to shut up, it’s probably because you enjoy writing dialogue and feel like you’re good at it. My stuff, if you’ve taken the time to read any of the snippets I’ve posted, tends to be on the talky side. I have an ear for dialogue, but this is not necessarily a good thing.
That is because, while you want to give your characters some free rein to talk the way they actually would, you can’t let them off the leash entirely. They don’t know where you’re trying to go. They’re in the moment, enjoying things. It’s your job to keep the narrative focused.
How much dialogue should you use? This is where we have to fall back on the foundational rule of writing: Whatever works. I’ve been told by some other writers with strong opinions on this subject that dialogue should be treated like salt at a fine French restaurant: used very sparingly and only with great deliberation. This has always struck me as overkill. Human beings interact mostly by talking, and if you’ve got a cast of characters who rarely talk to each other, that doesn’t seem to me to be very realistic, especially when it comes to romance and erotica. Human beings in particular tend to talk a great deal before they have sex.
That being said, you’ve still got to use just the right amount. Every time your characters open their mouths, you should feel like they’re advancing the plot somehow. Think of this as observing a conversation that you can listen to, but not participate in. As long as there seems to be a point to what these people are talking about, it’s worth listening to. But when it starts to meander with no clear destination in mind, your readers are going to start getting bored, just as you would be getting bored listening to this aimless conversation in real life.
I’ve found it can help to read dialogue out loud, or at least to yourself (I can’t read mine out loud since I have three school-age kids). If it sounds stilted to you, it will surely sound that way to your readers. Back up and think about what you’re trying to do. Are you talking, or is it your character?
Mastering dialogue is one of the toughest parts of fiction writing, but it’s a hurdle you have to get over if you don’t want to suck.