Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dialogue Development


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Before beginning this blog post, I'd like to thank all of those who've given me kind and encouraging words during what has been and continues to be the worst time of my life.  I always knew I had awesome friends, family and followers, but your thoughtfulness has cemented that fact in stone.  My dad is doing better than we expected and I'm hopeful that he'll be with us for longer than his doctors previously anticipated.

In returning back to my usual blog posts, I'd like to focus on dialogue.  Great dialogue moves a book along making the pages fly by so fast that the reader barely has time to notice.  In some cases, it can enhance a so-so plot and so-so story telling.  For me this was particularly true in the book Something Borrowed.  Overall, I wasn't too fond of the actual story, but the dialogue was pure genius.  Without it, I wouldn't have been able to finish the book.

Dialogue can spark wars and end them.  It can break hearts and mend fences; it can give hope and take it away. Speech is the most essential tool we as humans possess and should be represented accordingly in literature. Compelling literary dialogue should be able to move the same mountains for fictional characters as it does for living, breathing characters.

There is a trick to writing dialogue that grips the reader (and believe me, I'm still trying to find it).  However, there are some definite dos that I've both stumbled upon and hold true for writing dialogue and I believe that following some of these important tips can help even the most chronic of dialogue stumblers.

 
Listen to others talk--It's been said that the best way to write dialogue is to listen to how people talk.  To me, this can be both beneficial and a tad bit frightening (especially if you've ever caught the tail end of a conversation taking place at a bar, Walmart, while walking down the street behind a pack of teenagers, or occasionally even in your own home).  Real people don't normally use words in casual conversation that us average people have to grab a dictionary to understand.  This is especially true when it comes to adolescent characters and it irks me to no end when I read a teenager using the philosophical language of a forty year old. 

In casual conversation, a lot of nonessential information is often included that does nothing to move ahead to the point the conversation revolves around.  Although you want to have variation in your dialogue, rambling may be off putting to may readers reminding them of their battle to get off the phone each time Aunt Milly calls for a "brief" chat.  Keep your dialogue, short, simple, real and as a tool to progress the plot along.

Profanity, stereotypes, and slang--Anyone who knows me, knows I have a tendency to swear like a sailor.  It's not a habit that I'm particularly proud of but one that I attribute to working with attorneys all day.  Seriously, you'd be amazed how much you swear after receiving a law degree. Despite my mouth, I still don't like reading gratuitous foul language in books.  Granted, I know a mobster, inmate, or all around hooligan is not going to substitute frickin' in place of the less savory option, but like all things it should be done in moderation. 

The same can be said about slang and stereotyping.  Whether the characters are white, black, purple, or from Planet Zoltor; young,old or immortal, not everyone speaks a certain way.  I know grandparents who speak like teenagers, children with a better vocabulary than some adults, and Asians with a southern accent.  Just because visually a person fits every preconceived notion you've ever had doesn't mean they were cut from the same cloth.  In writing, I believe it's important not to play up stereotypes as not only are they played out, but some may even find them offensive.  Unless you are doing a period piece where some aspects of them may be unavoidable, use them sparingly, or in a humorous matter

Flow seamlessly--Dialogue should transition from one topic to another.  If your characters are talking about how their children's temper tantrums are driving them crazy in one sentence, it makes absolutely no sense to start spouting off about astronomy in another sentence unless there's some sort of transition between the two: 

Examples:

No

Mary:  "Jill's tenacity is driving me crazy," Mary said.  "She just won't quit."
Holly:  "I know the feeling," Holly said.  "Henry is just as bad."
Mary:  "Have you heard how the shuttle launch went?"

Better

Mary:  "Jill's tenacity is driving me crazy," Mary said.  "She just won't quit."
Holly:  "I know the feeling," Holly said.  "Henry is just as bad.  I'm about ready to ship him to the moon."
Mary:  "Speaking of the moon, did you hear how the shuttle launch went?"

Use action--In my opinion, the best dialogue is made while pouring a cup of tea, fighting an evil villain, or taking a walk in the park on a summer's day.  When two people are speaking, they're not always sitting side by side staring at the wall, they're doing something while they're in the midst of conversation.  Whether that something is a remedial task or a more complex physical feat, I believe a little action with dialogue goes a long way.

Don't provide too much info--Being overly wordy--especially in dialogue--and saying more than you really need to to get the point across in order to advance the plot is never a good idea. No one likes Chatty Cathy's or those people who give too much unnecessary details away (or the ending for that matter).  Keep conversations light, efficient, meaningful, and as a tool to advance the plot without giving too much away.

Dialogue tags--I've read varying opinions on the use of dialogue tags.  Many people like them as they leave no doubt about who is commanding the conversation while others prefer the use of gestures or actions as indicators of those speaking. 

Ex:  Sally gestured to the book on Harry's coffee table entitled Here's the Situation:  A Guide to Creeping on Chicks, Avoiding Grenades and Getting in Your GTL on the Jersey Shore with a disgusted look overcoming her face, "You know the world is going down the tubes when even The Situation can land a book deal."

One of the more resounding concurrences I've read surrounds the use of primarily the words "said" and "ask" for dialogue tags.  This is not something I personally agree with as I'm one of those people who hates to see one word used several times on a page.  But I can certainly see how using a variety of tags can make your dialogue unnecessarily hard to follow and a tad redundant.  It's been said that if a writer writes well enough that the reader won't even notice the use of  "said" and "ask" over an over again,  but in my opinion if you can use other tags sparingly, then I believe you should.

Real people have issues vocalizing what they're saying--If you're like me, you do your best speaking through the written word rather than the vocal.  Those who are quick on their feet with retorts or witty remarks have always been the subjects of my envy.  With that in mind, why should writing differ from real life?  Granted, you're going to have those characters who speak differently from others, especially if these characters are smartasses, but in real life people don't talk like characters from The Big Bang Theory (as much as I love that show).  In order to be realistic, some of your characters should stumble through dialogue in certain situations or they should be rendered nearly speechless.  Not all of us are rocket scientists and we all respond differently when confronted with different situations.  If your characters speak too perfectly, you may lose your readers as they'll start to see the story as fake and lose their ability to identify with the characters.

Exclamations and um uh--One of the biggest no-nos in writing is the use of an exorbitant amount of exclamation marks (some people say you shouldn't use them at all, some say you should use no more than one or two throughout your entire novel).  Although I've used them--a God awful lot in my earlier works--I tend to side with the whole staying away from them opinion.  Unless the exclamation mark adds something to the story or if the urgency of the situation wouldn't come across otherwise (which is a sign that you need to revise) then I believe the surprise, shock or emergency can be conveyed through the use of normal punctuation. 

With "ums" and "uhs", a little goes a long way.  Even though many, many people speak this way, their overuse is enough to make me want to pull my hair out.  If this type of speech is true to the character you've created, then I would say it's fine to use them, just keep track of how much you're using them.  Reread their dialogue out loud.  If you find yourself becoming annoyed by them, it's a good bet your readers will too.

Unexpected--One of the things I hate the most (whether it's in books or in movies) is predictable dialogue.  Recently, I was watching a movie I'd never seen before but found myself being miraculously able to  recite what the characters were going to say in a particular scene.  Why?  Because the writer went for the obvious  retorts instead of coming up with something new or original. As writers, originality on top of creativity is essential.  Going with the obvious or jokes that were around in 1920 is going to do nothing for your readers. This is why it's essential to test your work with beta readers or those people you know will not be afraid to exercise absolute honesty with you.  Have them review your dialogue, if they can predict where it's going, then perhaps change is necessary.

Now it's your turn.  In your opinion, what makes for compelling character dialogue?

9 comments:

linda said...

Glad to hear your dad is doing better! Best wishes to you and your family.

And thanks for the awesome tips on dialogue, especially your spot-on points about stereotypes.

I think dialogue with subtext is fascinating to read. Sometimes one character sounds like he or she is talking about one thing while actually thinking about something else entirely, but the other person isn't aware. Or maybe that person is. Or maybe the listener is hoping that the speaker is alluding to something when the speaker had no such intention. Of course, if the characters are too dense it'd be annoying, but done subtly it'd make for great dialogue, I think.

Shakespeare said...

I really like it when people don't finish sentences... something I hear all the time, as if they haven't completed a thought, or expect the other person to know what the end of it is, without them saying it.

What ISN'T said, in these cases, is as interesting as what is said.

Sara Furlong-Burr said...

Linda--Thank you! We're trying to hang in there, but it's rough. I agree, subtext adds an entertaining touch. :-)

Shakespeare--I do that quit a bit with my writing. So much sometimes that people tend to get annoyed, but I appreciate it, lol.

mooderino said...

Hi - just started following your blog. Liking it so far, off to explore.

mood
Moody Writing
@mooderino

Deborah said...

Thanks for this good review of dialogue done well. I shared it on Facebook with my Redwood Writers Club friends.

I love dialogue where characters don't get each other, just like many of us, and talk at cross purposes. Readers receive a hint, which the characters are clueless about, thus making readers want to know more about, why, and if there will be a point of understanding.

Jennifer said...

I'm glad your father is doing better. It is rough when your parents are ill - I've been there too often.

I wanted to let you know I've gotten a lot of great information from reading your posts.

I'm passing on to you the Liebster Blog Award for new and upcoming blogs. You can follow my link back to my blog, where I've nominated you.

Tressa said...

Excellent post but more importantly Excellent News About Your Dad!

Peggy Eddleman said...

I love that you said real people have issues vocalizing what they're saying. I think that a huge dialog problem is when things get worked out too much by dialogue. The average person is just not that good.

This was a really great post!

Sophie Li said...

Great post!

I think dialogue is probably the most challenging part of writing because its not so much straight & narrow in regards to grammar.