Monday, December 16, 2013

Writing Erotic Dialogue

Written dialogue includes both the conversations that your characters have with each other and the ones that your point of view character has with him or herself. It can be used to convey sexual tension, desire, humor and countless other emotions by showing instead of telling.
Your reader learns about your character’s thoughts and feelings through what she/he says to others. At the same time, the dialogue is (hopefully) moving your story’s plot forward.

There are two general flavors of dialogue. External dialogue is signaled to the reader through the use of punctuation like quotation marks.  Internal dialogue is generally expressed in italics. External dialogue is used to develop the characters and to set the scene, among other things. Internal dialogue is also used for character development, but in this case, it’s just one character, usually the point of view one. It expresses that character’s thoughts, feelings and memories, anything that the character cannot or will not express aloud to the other characters.

Because dialogue uses specialized punctuation, it is set off from the paragraphs of description and action around it. This means that these sections of your prose leap out at the reader. Given this, dialogue should be used for maximum impact. If your characters are exchanging information by speaking to each other, it should be meaningful to your story. This goes for internal dialogue as well: your character should be expressing thoughts and feelings that add something to the story.

Using both kinds of dialogue is a handy technique for avoiding the pitfalls of “show, don’t tell.” Instead of just stating that one character is attracted to another, you can transform that attraction into internal dialogue. Or you can show your characters flirting, expressing their desire in what they say as well as what is left unsaid. If done well, conveying emotions through dialogue helps to pull your reader into the story by making it easier to identify with the characters and the situation.

That said, written dialogue during a sex scene is a bit trickier than writing it for characters before or after. It can be difficult to write something that doesn’t sound stilted or cliched. Often it’s easier and more effective to focus on describing what the characters are experiencing instead of having them describe it out loud. Whatever you decide to do, avoid capitalized dialogue, especially when following it with multiple exclamation marks, as in “AHHH!! OOHH!!! (insert name of deity here). This has become one of the ultimate stereotypes of erotic writing and is sure to add to your list of rejections if you decide to use it. Yes, some people do say things like this in real life but on the page it doesn’t add anything to the story. The yelling is just blowing off steam and you might be better off summing it up with something like, “He came with a shout.”

Dialogue is terrific for building the sexual tension and the mood between the characters before the sex scene. It’s also handy for the aftermath. Your characters express their attraction to each other beforehand and make plans or bid their adieus afterward. Or the reader is immersed entirely in one character’s perception of the other(s) through the use of internal dialogue. See any current chick-lit novel for examples; they tend to be full of asides to the reader which are used effectively for character development and humor. Either way the point is to pull the reader into the story, hopefully enabling them to feel the character’s arousal.

Using dialogue as the aftermath of a sex scene is a bit different than using it beforehand. Here you get to set the tone for the reader to interpret the rest of the story. Are your characters off on the road to a beautiful relationship? Do they hope to never see each other again? Does only one of them feel this way? You can make your reader relate better to your characters by pulling them into your written conversations.

Writing dialogue is both similar and dissimilar from having conversations in everyday life. On the one hand, you want it to sound real in order to develop the kind of characters you are writing about. But unlike real life conversations, written dialogue needs to serve your story so it needs to have a purpose. Work on keeping your characters’ speech patterns consistent (grammar, accent, slang, etc.) in the interests of keeping the dialogue realistic. Any changes need to be explained. In general, dialectical English (Southern, Brooklyn, etc.) doesn’t translate well to the page unless you speak it like a native and sometimes not even then. You can suggest accents to the reader by talking about how the other characters hear them and/or using expressions from the geographical region. Even then, a little goes a long way.

As part of helping you to keep your dialogue realistic, it’s worthwhile to pay attention to how other people actually talk to each other. Selective eavesdropping on conversations is one way to do it. Listen to how people speak to each other on the bus or in the coffeeshop. Write down striking phrases or new slang. Listen to the cadence of the words (just not too obviously!). Just remember that most real conversations aren’t that interesting on the page and don’t write your dialogue exactly as you would speak it.

Reading and attending plays is a good way to develop your skills with dialogue. Since plays are all dialogue, they offer fiction writers a unique opportunity to hear a story told without paragraphs of exposition. Try to attend and read plays by a range of playwrights, not just Shakespeare, to get a sense of how to work with dialogue. If you can, attend a new play festival in your area and learn from the successes and failures of playwrights who haven’t made it big yet. It can be an excellent lesson in what works and what doesn’t.

There are also plenty of prose writers who are/were masters of dialogue use. Try Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances or check one of the year’s best erotica anthologies for examples (Best New Erotica, Best American Erotica, etc.). Movies and TV are another option but use them sparingly. The stories here are told more through pictures than words and it’s hard to translate that to the page and make it work.

The thing to remember about using dialogue in your stories is that it’s one tool of many for building your story. You can write a successful short story or even a novel (much harder) without using dialogue very much at all. But if all of your stories are written this way, you may want to examine why you’re avoiding using it. A useful exercise for overcoming fear of talking characters is to write an entire scene in dialogue, no other exposition. It doesn’t need to be a sex scene but it does need to include one or more characters exchanging information. Try reading it aloud to see how it sounds.

If you’re confused or just want to double-check your punctuation mechanics, The Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, various years) or Strunk and White’s Elements of Style are excellent resources that every writer should have. Browne and King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers  (Harper Resource, 2004) also has a good section on using dialogue effectively.
Until next time, happy writing!

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