Sunday, January 24, 2010

Dialogue with the dull bits cut out

One thing that makes a story truly sing for me is well-written dialogue. In my own writing, I rely heavily on dialogue to convey much of the story. One reason for this is that it establishes conflict between individuals much more deeply than just stating that such conflict exists.  For instance, in SHARDS I chose to expose that April and Nick had a past illicit sexual relationship through their dialogue rather than through their thoughts or a flashback:

     April watched him stir two more packets into the three he had already added at the beginning. “And you make fun of me for the way I drink coffee,” she said. “At least I don’t pretend to be an adult, order black coffee, and then turn it into a milkshake.”
    “My coffee issues are irrelevant, we’re catching up here,” Nick said. “So about the new boy toy.”
    April said, reluctantly, “His name is Conner.”
    He raised his eyebrows at her. “You know everything about Debra. Including how she expresses herself when she walks in on her boyfriend with a nubile co-ed. So feel free to divulge a little more.”

Having situations unfold largely through dialogue also allows you to retain a note of mystery -- rather than the omniscient author stating something, you let your characters reveal as much or little as they wish through their words.

A few things I've learned about dialogue:

1. Like Alfred Hitchock said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out." While you want your dialogue to sound realistic, you don't want to bog it down in realism.  We all say "Um" and "Yeah" in real dialogue, but your characters generally don't need to unless you are using their speaking style to establish something about them in that particular scene.  Dialogue doesn't need to include all the back-and-forth of our speech, either; cut out all the extraneous stuff and stick with lines that reveal something about your characters and their situation.

2. Dialogue should be personal to the character. It doesn't matter how clever or brilliant or revealing the line is, it doesn't belong if that particular character wouldn't say something like that. One way to test this? Cut out everything else. Then look at your page of text. Do you get lost about who is speaking, or do individual voices stand out?

3. Pacing with dialogue -- if you have nothing but lines of dialogue, it reads like two people rat-tat-tating away at each other, firing back quick responses. Sometimes that's appropriate. Otherwise, break up these lines with action items. As a rule of thumb, I try to do this at minimum every three pieces of dialogue.

One thing I always find interesting is the great dialogue tag debate. Should dialogue be tagged almost exclusively with he said/she said, or should there be some variety? I've been writing fiction since I was about seven years old, and as a child I used different tags almost exclusively, eschewing the commonplace said.  Here's an example of my youthful writing (which, by the way, has never seen the light of day -- I wish I saw some use for the complete middle-grade sci-fi novel I wrote in junior high, but... well... see for yourself):

    "You're making the poor girl nervous," Lezon worried.
    "How can I be making her nervous?" Gundark retorted. "I'm not doing anything. Just breathing."
    "Then stop," Lezon snapped.
  Oh great, Janie thought. Our world is about to be invaded by bickering aliens.
    Gundark sighed. "Listen, Janie. You're going to listen to me carefully, so that when the rest of your family comes home, you can explain everything to them."

However, now that I am older and, presumably, wiser (although really, this could go either way) I've overcome my allergy to good old "said".  I think using an excessively wide variety of tags becomes distracting from the dialogue itself. However,  I still don't like for anything to be too repetitive, so I do use action items within the same paragraph as the quote, when the detail is relevant to the story, instead of "said". For example:

Conner glanced up from his book, as if oblivious to Professor Daniels. “That’s what I’ve been telling her!”

Right or wrong on the dialogue tags? Well, I really have no idea. This is just my perspective from writing (and, perhaps even more importantly, reading). What's yours?


Shannon O'Donnell said...

Excellent post! Dialogue is something I'm still developing. I need to use more than I do. I tend to fall back too heavily on narrative. Thanks for this! :-)

Summer said...

Great post, Guinevere! Dialogue is an ever-present thought for me, too. I used to be really bad with the ridiculous dialogue tags as well, but as I've matured, I've fallen further and further into the "said" route--even when it's a question. Mostly just for one particular character, but I like that using "said" almost exclusively makes you rely more on what's being said and less what the writer is telling you is being said.

I usually go about 3 lines and an action tag, too. I think it's a comfortable reading pace.

Mid-line action quotes are something I like to read, but am still working on putting into my own writing.

Mostly this all translates into me thinking way too hard about how I actually converse with people. :-)

Chasing the Moon said...

Ooh...good point! This is a great post and handy reminder. I just finished (finally!) my first chapter so I'm going to go back and keep this in mind when I revise.

Good luck with your writing!

Jen said...

This is really insightful! I am still working on mastering the art of dialogue and these are excellent tips!! Thanks!

Guinevere said...

Shannon, we probably have opposite problems. When in doubt, I fall back on dialogue rather than narrative. I blame my collegiate drama career on the default!

Summer, I love the mid-line action quote... sometimes I think I overuse it, though. There's always something to be neurotic about as a writer. :p

Good luck with the first chapter, Chasing, and thanks by stopping by the blog!

Thanks, Jen. I'm glad my post was helpful.

Greg Zimmerman said...

The one ironclad rule I've always understood about dialogue is that you never, never, NEVER use adverbs (i.e, she said, sadly). The reason: You must let your dialogue speak for itself - and convey IN what the character is saying that she said is sad or happy or apoplectic, or whatever. The tags (i.e, she crowed, shouted, spit out) don't really bother me as much as those adverbs, as long as the tags don't distract from what's actually being said. Just my 1/50 of a dollar. :)

Great post - got me thinkin'!