Jun 102010
 
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Ah, yes, dialogue: People talking at each other, right? Or are they, instead, talking to the reader, alternately revealing the plot in carefully-titrated installments, or providing “drama” as they “interact” and “character development” as they “reveal their foibles”?

Dialogue: it’s made out of wood, and you carve it with a chainsaw, right?

I’ve always despised writing dialogue. As one of my favorite essays on writing dialogue points out, it’s is one of the hardest things for beginning writers to get the hang of — but even seasoned writers rarely write good dialogue.

In any kind of fiction, conversations are often forced and unrealistic at best, laughably ridiculous at worst. Voracious fiction readers often barely even notice it, because they get used to it, which is probably why the biggest fiction readers, when they turn to writing, often write the very worst dialogue. They write it like they’ve read it, and it sounds awkward — because dialogue in most fiction sounds awkward.

This syndrome perpetuates for a good procedural reason in addition to just plain habit: In plot-driven fiction, dialogue’s purpose is not to portray how people really talk, but to move the plot forward and establish character. It is a very rare writer who can have her or his characters do those two things and also sound realistic. It’s a rare writer, actually, who can have characters do that and not sound just plain weird.

When we start talking about erotica, it gets weirder still. How does one portray people talking dirty without sounding dumb? When most people think about talking dirty, they imagine dialogue like “Give me your long hot cock!” or “You want it? Yeah? You want it? Yeah? You want it?” that seem to be copped from porn movies.

Evangelists for “talking dirty in bed” often encourage practitioners to do exactly that sort of thing, if that’s what’s hot for them. And that’s awesome if you’re trying to turn on yourself and your partner, verbally. Much of the instruction around learning to talk dirty in bed has to do with losing your inhibitions. Say “give me your long hot cock” if that’s what works for you, and/or your partner.

To be an effective dirty-talker in your private life, on some level you need to not be afraid to sound ridiculous.

But if you’re a writer, it’s your job not to sound ridiculous. Characters in your erotic novel or story shouldn’t spew porn-movie clichés in dialogue any more than they should order a pizza with “extra sausage” without any way to pay for it.

Writing teachers and in how-to articles often suggest that a writer should learn to write convincing dialogue by listening to how people talk. Which is a great piece of advice, but to learn how people talk dirty, do you have to be a big fuckin’ slut?

That certainly helps. If you’ve had sex with a lot of people, you might have a better sense of how people act in bed (or the back seat, or the restroom of a 747 on the polar route to Helsinki, or bent over the railing at a football game), which includes how they talk. That may also be true if you’re a sex worker of any flavor, or if you’ve done any other kind of professional communication about sex that puts you in contact with people and their foibles. If you’re the sort of person who can go to public sex parties or BDSM events, and you’re in the sort of locale that has them, you can certainly learn a lot about how people interact sexually by attending such a thing.

But it’s not necessary to be a big-city perv in order to write erotica (as I hope you already know), and you don’t have to fuck people to know how they talk about sex.

The truth is, finding out how people talk about sex isn’t all that difficult. You simply ask them. If you’re not comfortable talking to your friends about sex, you’re going to have a harder time writing about it.

On the other hand, if you’ve really decided that people in your social circle aren’t up for talking about it, then you can also turn to online communities — because while the language people use when posting or chatting about sex certainly isn’t the same as they’d use in person, verbally, it’s a hell of a lot closer to what they’d say in bed than the dialogue in most erotic fiction. Or, for that matter, in the quotes in “nonfiction” articles you’ll read in Cosmopolitan, all of which I’m convinced are made up by the authors, or at least heavily paraphrased.

Another way to spice up your erotic dialogue is to read quality nonfiction about sex. For instance, one of the very best books you can read for learning how women talk about sex is Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking My Secret Garden, a series of interviews with women about their sexual fantasies. Its companion, Men In Love features Friday interviewing men. The books are very out of date nowadays — but they’re still among the best, freshest documents out there for exploring how people talk and feel about sex. Even though the interviews aren’t in the form of dialogue, these books are a great place to start.

Keep in mind that dialogue should, ideally, move the plot forward and reveal character while sounding fresh. If it sounds realistic, more’s the better — and fresh often equals realistic. But it’s better to write unrealistic dialogue that’s a joy to read than to write dialogue that’s realistic, but doesn’t work in story terms, whether your characters are in the bedroom, boardroom, hotel room or on a surfboard.

Last but far from least, work on your dialogue outside the bedroom as well as inside the bedroom, with all the tools that you can find. Read plays and screenplays, which often have more finely-honed dialogue sensibilities than fiction. Listen to people talk on the street, in cafes, in classrooms, wherever.

Unless you’re writing pure-sex vignettes, then as an erotic writer you’ve got to engage readers the same way any other commercial writer does; you’ve got to keep them reading long enough to get your peeps to bed. You can write the hottest pillow-talk in the world, but if you’re lost your reader before the protagonists even make it back to her place, then your heroine’s cries of “Extra sausage? But I ordered anchovies!” will go unappreciated.

And did I mention listen? Too many of us sit around in conversation waiting to talk. As a writer, you get to express yourself on the page. So, if you don’t already, start to listen, not just to what people are saying, but how they are saying it. Getting a real knack for dialogue in general will mean that when it comes time for you to undress your characters, they’ll be as fully-formed as you can make them — or, at least, as they need to be for the story.

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  6 Responses to “Writing Erotic Dialogue”

  1. Excellent article, Thomas!

    Dialogue (of any type, not just in the bedroom) has been a real problem for me ever since I began writing. My characters all sounded “wooden”. I think that I’m improving, partly because I’ve realized that people talk in phrases or even single words, not sentences. It’s still an area of weakness, however.

    I’ve never really thought much about the distinction between dialogue in and outside of the bedroom. I don’t think my characters tend to talk that much during sex. Maybe because I don’t!

    I should mention that I have personally been involved in orgies and have visited sex clubs, and in my experience, apart from grunts and moans, they tend to be pretty quiet. Conversation takes place before or after, but not usually during.

    Best,
    Lisabet

  2. Good advice. I used to just write a lot of sex scenes that involved gags. :)

  3. @Vague, glad you liked it. I like writing sex scenes that involve gags, but I find when verbal repartee for me it blows the whole story — meaning if I’m writing it and I get it wrong, it just derails.

    @Lisabet, thanks also! I guess my thinking is — in bed, or doing phone sex, or whatever, people often try to talk sexy by talking porny, and it doesn’t work. There is actually a sort of charming awkwardness to the way people sound when they’re trying to talk porny and blowing it. There’s also romantic talk, which is always weird to me. I’ve had certain lovers sound like they’re reciting Bollywood lyrics.

  4. great article! I co-write with my husband as Adriana Kraft – when we first started we developed the routine of reading every scene out loud, wich we still do. I think that really helped us improve our dialogue skills. Listening helps a lot too – though Lisabet’s right, in the heat of the moment it’s mostly just grunts and moans.

  5. @Adriana – I always read dialogue out loud when writing scripts, but never when writing prose, for some reason. It’s lots of fun — sound like it’d be very hot in the context of erotica, too.

  6. definitely hot – in fact, if reading it out loud doesn’t generate the desired response, it’s time to go back to the drawing board!

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