Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Here are some more dialogue tips. You might want to read the previous blog first to get the context. Enjoy.
Structure and Formality
Alex smiled, “Great. Okay, we’ve talked about staying focused as well as the art of digressing. What else adds to effective dialogue? Franklin?”
“I was thinkin’ ‘sentences,’ you know?”
An awkward pause.
“What, specifically, about sentences?”
“Well, dere’s a certain way, ya know, when some people write, that the sentences are structured. But it’s different when ya talk.”
Stacy agreed. “I think I know what you’re saying, Alex. When people speak, they don’t always use correct grammar, they talk in sentences that have a shorter number of words, they use more contractions and they sometimes blur words together. Consequently, in order for sentences to sound natural to our ears, we need to write them in such a way that they’re not too structurally complex or intricately woven.”
“Mm, hmm,” said Moesha.
“Right,” said Alex. “Now we’re getting into the nuts and bolts of dialogue writing. When people speak, they’re less formal. So, keep your sentences brief. And use contractions more often and more consistently than you would in the narrative sections of your story. And, use more idioms.”
“All right,” said Stacy, “I think we get your drift.”
“Clear as mud,” said Nadine.
Consistency and Redundancy
For a few minutes no one said anything. Finally, Jason broke the silence. “Something I don’t think we’ve really mentioned yet, is that each character should speak in a consistent and distinctive voice. When you listen to some TV shows, everyone sounds exactly the same. They use the same idioms. They speak in the same style sentences. They crack the same kind of jokes. That’s evidence of poor writing. And the same thing can happen in fiction--and nonfiction--if you’re not careful. Good dialogue reflects the uniqueness of each of the story characters. Their grammar, word choice, and sense of humor can all be unique.”
Moesha nodded. “Mm, hm.”
“Great,” said Alex. “And there’s one more thing I need to mention that’s a pet peeve of mine.”
“Was dat?” asked Franklin.
“It’s annoying when the writer tries to show off by using all sorts of different words to talk about the dialogue. Attributions should disappear so the reader hardly ever notices them.”
“Yeah,” exclaimed Stacy, “I hate that, too.”
“Me, too,” chipped in Nadine.
“Mm, hm,” rejoined Moesha.
“That’s so true!” observed Jason.
“Yo,” quipped Franklin.
“Great,” summarized Alex. “So we all agree. Let’s not do that. It just distracts the reader. Just use ‘said’ and be done with it.”
“Something else that distracts me,” said Jason, “Is when the same author uses the same word too much in the same sentence or in the same paragraph.”
“I agree,” agreed Franklin.
“And don’t restate what’s already been said,” said Nadine. “It’s redundant to keep restating everything.”
“Yeah, and you don’t need to keep re-saying the same thing in different ways. Either say it, or explain it, but not both,” explained Alex.
Pace and Flow
Nadine scribbled something in her notebook and then looked up at Jason. “In your fiction writing, have you ever used a question to get a conversation going?”
“Sometimes, yeah. Questions can be good conversation starters. So can observations about the setting--by that I mean the surroundings--or responses to dramatic situations. All of those things can be used to spark a conversation.”
Stacy cleared her throat. “I’ve noticed something else, Nadine. Sometimes when only two people are carrying on a conversation, you don’t need to include attributions at all because the reader will naturally be able to keep the speakers straight, just by the flow of the conversation.”
“Really?” asked Nadine.
“Are you sure?”
“They won’t get confused about who’s talking?”
“No,” said Stacy. “You can trust your readers. Tell ‘em only what they need to know.”
Jason agreed. “You got it, Stacy. It’s an insult to the readers when the author always identifies the speaker. Most of the time, context speaks for itself.”
Stacy beamed and glanced down at the table.
Alex smiled broadly. “Okay, then. To summarize: good dialogue expresses something about the characters, moves the story forward, is natural-sounding, easy-to-read--”
“Rather than cumbersome,” interjected Stacy.
“Right. And yet there’s an artistry to it. Sometimes you gotta break the rules in order to make the story work.”
“Mm, hm,” said Moesha finishing up her burger. “What’s for dessert?”
“Plot,” said Alex. “But not until next week.”
I'm teaching writing this week in North Carolina and I thought I'd share a few thoughts on writing dialogue from the course I'm teaching today.
Alex plopped down next to Stacy. “So, we’ve gotten together today to talk about writing effective dialogue,” he said.
Nadine nodded. “Yeah, and I’m glad. Most writer’s groups never get specific enough for me. Too much info on general stuff. I really need some nuts and bolts advice to help me with my novel.”
“Great, well then, let’s get started.”
Stacy shifted in her seat. “One of the things that bothers me the most about novice writers is the way they handle dialogue. Instead of letting each person talk naturally and in turn, they just let one person keep on talking until she’s delivered a veritable speech. Nobody else gets a chance to say anything. The man or woman--I want to be inclusive here--just keeps rambling on and on and on and that’s just not how people talk in real life! Conversations don’t work like that. No one ever gets a chance to explain everything that’s on her mind all at once without interruption.” She paused and looked around. “Right?”
“Das, right,” agreed Franklin. “Yo. Dat, or de writers jes start makin’ up der own way of spellin’ wurds rather than lettin’ somun express hisself by just his word choises. Know what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah, it’s too hard to read when writers do that,” agreed Nadine. “Don’t you think so Moesha?”
Moesha took a bite of her cheeseburger and mumbled, “Mm, hmm.”
“Okay.” Alex looked around the restaurant table at the other five writers. “So, those are two great points. Who can summarize them for us?”
“Well,” Jason said, “let’s see… first of all, in effective dialogue, exchanges are brief. Back and forth. Good dialogue mirrors real speech because people speak in spurts rather than long lectures to each othe--”
“And sometimes people interrupt each other?” said Stacy.
“Right. And sometimes folks just let their thoughts trail off… and…” he paused to consider his response. “And clarity is essential. Dialect is best expressed through the judicious use of idiom rather than by the creative respellings of words.”
The other writers nodded in agreement while Moesha took another bit of her burger.
Focusing vs. Digressing
Stacy cleared her throat. “Well, written dialogue might mirror real speech, but it isn’t exactly like it.”
“Yo. Why do ya say dat?” asked Franklin.
“Well, sometimes in real life we just talk about trivial things--our jobs, the weather, clothes--”
“I wouldn’t say clothes are trivial,” interrupted Nadine.
Stacy smiled. “You know what I mean. Or the news, or who won the Mets game, or whatever.”
Franklin wrinkled his brow. “And so…?”
“And so, when you write, you have to use dialogue to move the story forward. Every word has to serve a purpose and not just take up space.”
“That’s a good point,” said Alex. “Writers are sometimes tempted to just put pen on paper and see where it takes ‘em. Too often, though, sections of dialogue just turn into sections of drivel. The story doesn’t move anywhere. It just stalls out. So, dialogue must always be purposive.”
Jason had been tapping his finger anxiously on the table next to his chicken wings.
Alex noticed. “Did you have something to add to that, Jason?”
“I think so.” He folded his arms and gazed toward the ceiling. “I’m not disagreeing with you or Stacy… it’s just that … well, if dialogue is too focused or too direct, it can also become too predictable for your readers. Sometimes you’ll want your dialogue to pool off in different directions. Yet, the real narrative artist can even do that in way that supports the story.”
Nadine was busy writing everything he said in her notebook. Stacy sat a little too quietly watching him.
“I don’t git it,” said Franklin. “Give me an example.”
“Well, let’s see… we’re talking about writing, right?”
“So, let’s say we were writing this conversation down. You know, inserting it into a story or something.”
“Who’d wanna read about us?” asked Nadine.
“Just pretend. So, if we were turning this into written dialogue, we could leave out all the stuff we said when we first got here--before we ordered our food--all the small talk--”
“That’s what I was saying before,” interrupted Stacy. “That’s what I meant when I said you have to use dialogue to move the story forward.”
Jason took a deep breath. “Right, I know. I’m not arguing with you. But we’d want to include more than just the conversation. If we only included the bare bones stuff, it might tell the reader about our discussion, but it wouldn’t necessarily reveal the personality of the characters or the inner tension of the story. The readers want to see the motivations, the traits, the quirks, the uniqueness of each character. All of this can be shown by the careful use of digression.”
“Well,” Stacey said, “I don’t see how you can show all that by just a few words of dialogue.” She clinked her spoon loudly as she stirred her black coffee.
Jason sighed. “Forget it.”
“No,” said Alex. “This is good. You’re right. You brought up a good point. We can go too far to one extreme or the other. That’s what you’re saying, isn’t it, Jason?”
Alex continued, “By digressing you can insert clues to what motivates your characters, throw red herrings to the reader--for, say, a mystery novel--foreshadow important events, or add new dramatic elements to the storyline.”
“Yeah. That’s what I was trying to say.”
Moesha nodded and wiped ketchup from her chin.