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July 26th, 2014

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01:50 pm - On Dialogue

cathellisen and I were tweeting a few minutes ago and then Twitter collapsed (at least on my end), so I'm going to continue our talk a bit here on the blog.

I've got a piece of juvenalia up on my monitor that is...horrifying. Aside from everything else, the DIALOGUE, OH THE DIALOGUE. That got me started thinking about the most basic things one could tell a fledgling writer, simple stuff that could improve their dialogue from what I was cranking out at that point (college age, people. COLLEGE. Holy shit, was I still that bad a writer even by then?).

1. CONTRACTIONS. Real people use them, and so should your characters. If they're speaking their native language fluently, they'll have grammatical shortcuts. In English these are contractions. Even in formal speech, English has contractions (though fewer).

Usage note: Sometimes English can contract multiple ways: "I had not..." or "I would not..." can contract to "I'd not..." or "I hadn't..." or "I wouldn't..." To my American ears, the first sounds a bit formal, even with the contraction.

Other usage note: What with all the helper verbs in English, there are multiple ways to say simple things, each with contractions: "I had none" "I hadn't any" "I'd none" "I didn't have any". So play around with those things. I found I tended to use the more formal sounding "I had none" instead of "I did not have any," so to get the right, fluent contraction in many cases meant I had to first change the phrasing.

Note of note: Obviously you need to do what's right for the characters. But I assure you, your big dramatic fantasy novel characters will not sound better for speaking formally all the time.

2. That said, CHARACTERS SHOULDN'T LITERALLY TALK LIKE REAL PEOPLE. Real people have digressions and repetition in their conversations. They have momentary misunderstandings that are cleared up quickly. They have verbal tics such as "um" or "you know." (Indeed, I entertain myself in business meetings by counting how many times a particular coworker says "you know." I used to do the same with how many times my sophmore year social studies teacher said "and, uh.")

Dialogue should be streamlined. You can gloss over the obvious things such as phone greetings:
Millicent called shortly thereafter to tell me she had the idol. "But you better get here quick. I think someone followed me home."

"Make sure the doors are locked. I'll be right there."

Five minutes later, I pulled into Millicent's driveway behind a car I had never seen before.

See, none of that hello/goodbye stuff, and no reader will miss it. We know it happened; you don't have to show it. Heck, in real life there would be at least a few more sentences of Millicent being scared, the narrator reassuring her, maybe some "How did you find it? Never mind, you'll tell me when I get there." But NONE of that is needed.

3. AS YOU KNOW BOB. Dialogue is not a means of exposition. You can get away with it sometimes if one character is new to a place and another character is explaining things to them (and by extension, the reader). But try to remember that real people don't tell each other things they already know. "Dear, your best friend Millicent is on the phone for you." If she's my best friend, just say "Millicent," and I'll know. The reader will have to figure out the best-friend status from the rest of the interaction. (Also, don't say "for you," because OBVIOUSLY she's calling for me. So: "Dear, Millicent is on the phone."*

Those are really basic things, stuff rookies can learn pretty quickly and which give a lot of improvement to dialogue for not a lot of effort. There are of course plenty more advanced tips, such as one Cat mentioned on twitter: DIALOGUE SHOULD HAVE SUBTEXT. But that's a more advanced lesson and a different blog post for another time.

Let me know in comments any simple tricks you have for making dialogue sound less stilted.

*What with family-plan cell phones, probably no one utters this sort of sentence anymore. Young people, this is what your parents would say when they answered the landline and the caller wanted to talk to you.

(3 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:July 26th, 2014 09:43 pm (UTC)
Don't have tricks for you, sorry.

Regarding point #1, yes so much. I was recently reading an acclaimed debut novel that's gotten some hype this year, and there was much to like about it, but for a number of reasons including this one there was one character whose voice I couldn't find. He had an earnestness and a bizarre, largely contractionless formality that didn't seem to fit his character or background, and through the whole novel I couldn't believe him because I couldn't find the sound of his voice, the cadence of his speech. It was weird.

Point #3 happens in fiction -- I don't love the as-you-know infodump -- but it happens so much more often in TV and the movies. I understand the need to make sure your audience understands what's going on, but at least introduce a character who doesn't know for that purpose! Even worse is the mid-film -- usually beginning of the third act -- infodump of stuff we already know: "So let me get this straight, fellow characters: this is what's going on, here's why, and here are the stakes. Does that sum it up?" A filmmaker having so little faith in his audience is a huge turn-off for me as a viewer.
[User Picture]
Date:July 26th, 2014 10:26 pm (UTC)
There are times #1 makes sense. Most of Tolkien's "old" characters (elves, dwarves, Aragorn and other noble-blood humans, Smaug) have that sort of speech, at least some of the time. Gandalf switches up depending if he's talking to elves or hobbits. But Tolkien matches it with the narration too.

And even Tolkien sounds a little melodramatic and OTT at times. :)

I have a character who's speaking his third language with all native speakers, so he doesn't use contractions and sometimes I give him subtly off-but-acceptable sentence structure. English's flexibility is a real benefice for this sort of thing.
Date:July 28th, 2014 12:55 pm (UTC)
I'll plead guilty to all three counts, Your Honor. I'll also plead guilty in advance for all other bad writing habits that exist. I'll plead double guilty for adverb abuse, although I blame Schoolhouse Rock's "Lolly Lolly Lolly" song for that. ;-)

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