Wasted Potential: Talk the Talk

>> Friday, June 17, 2011

Last time I talked about relationship between characters. One has to interact with the setting and in the plot, too, but I'm a big character person so that's where I tend to focus. One thing I didn't really get into, but should have, is a big aspect of both revealing a character and developing relationships: dialog.

I love dialog. I mean I really love dialog. If there's an aspect of writing I really take pride in, it's my dialog.

Ironically, even though I love dialog, in reality I don't speak like regular people do. Rather than let that bother me, I have a tendency to use that to my advantage. Why? Because I usually include at least one character who speaks much like I do (stupidly large vocabulary, esoteric words in ordinary usage and usually complete sentences). Those characteristics in speech pattern allow the reader to automatically pick up on many aspects of my character painlessly, making revealing him or her that much easier. It also provides contrast to other characters who speak in ways more in keeping with "typical," but even that varies by age and background and social standing, etc.

What I mean is dialog is a great way to provide contrast to your characters. The great character authors I know all get this. I can go back and read pages of dialog where I could completely skip the "so and so said" bits and I'd still know who was talking because the characters have distinctive voices and styles and concerns. If you go back and read your dialog (and read it out loud because nothing highlights crappy dialog like reading it out loud) and both sides sound the same, you'd better go back and fix it unless they're identical twins that share the same brain. Which would be cool, but I digress.

By varying the way people speak, you can readily portray youth, inexperience, education, attitude, thoughtfulness, emotionality, perspective... Really, everything. It's not just the things they say, but how they say it, their phrasing, vocabulary, syntax. Even the pauses and lack of speaking can say a great deal about character. Really, I can't stress enough how important, how vital, vibrant contrasting dialog is to making your characters distinct and alive.

A note about dialect: Most advice I've read on dialects and distinctly different pronunciation has said, "don't show it." As with most rules, I'm of the opinion that you should use that rule unless your story suffers by it. Truth is, reading dialect is hard for many people and, if readers are frustrated trying to figure out what the character's supposed to sound like or what they're saying, one can make a good argument that it's counterproductive. Additionally, and I mean this most kindly, most people can't write it believably worth a damn (and don't realize that they can't). That reason alone should give anyone pause before they decide to try, because, if the stuff that's right gives a reader pause, the stuff that sucks will make the reader pull their hair. And it makes the writer look like a hack. Probably not what you're going for.

Having said all that, dialect can provide a contrast. In generally, I do not advocate writing it all out phonetically, but putting in dropped consonants ("Just sayin'.") or specific words with a distinctive sound that speak to the character ("me darlin'" vs. "my darling" or even "dahling") can go a long way to setting a character apart and giving the reader a feel for a character's voice (or even "who" they are). I also have to mention that, when someone really nails dialect, it can be fantastic, as in James Herriot's hilarious memoirs, which would not be the same without the many many different dialects he puts in.

Give the dialog voice. Dialog can not only make or break your characters and their relationships, bad dialog can really bog down a story and make it sound fake. Stiff uninteresting dialog (particularly if it's used to expose some key elements) can quickly sound stilted and contrived, clumsy and, well, boring. Dialog should not sound like narration (unless you're deeply in third person POV and the narration has similar voice). Dialog should not sound like a news report; it does not need to be objective, unemotional or polite unless your character is. It should not sound professorial unless your character is. Witty characters should be sarcastic and smart, but every statement doesn't have to be a quip (in fact it can't be without sounding stupid). Put in emotions, stuttering, shocked pauses, inflammatory language, spoken (i.e. poor) grammar in as realistic way as possible. It needs to be alive and full of color and personality or you might as well have narrated it. Let me show you an example:

"Stop it," he said, when she flumped down next to him and laid her head on his shoulder. He shrugged to dislodge her, but she just moved with him and gave him a grin. "I'm trying to study here."

"You're always studying. My brother says you've become positively dull. Talk to me instead."

"Cory can speak for himself. If I'm so dull, go away." He could feel the heat of her body through his clothes and the distraction was sending his heart racing. "Don't you have something better to do than bug your brother's best friend?"

She hugged his arm and rubbed the side of her head against his shoulder. "No."
"Gah! You brat, get off," he said, when she flumped down next to him and laid her head on his shoulder. He shrugged to dislodge her, but she just moved with him and gave him a grin. "Can't you see I'm working here? Some of us have to study."

"Ha! Like you need to study. My brother says you're already setting the curve. You never even come up for air. I'm doing my civic duty by peeling you away from those books before you turn into an old man. Play with me."

"Cory's supposed to be studying, too. If he's got a complaint, he can tell me himself instead of getting his kid sister to do his dirty work. Get lost before you catch my senility." He could feel the heat of her body through his clothes and the distraction was sending his heart racing. "Don't you social butterflies always have things to do? Shopping? Group trips to the bathroom? Facebook flaming? Why don't you flutter away and leave me in peace?"

She hugged his arm and rubbed the side of her head against his shoulder. "Peace? No way! That's the last thing I'm going to leave you with."
In the first one, though we're saying effectively the same thing (and everything outside the quotes is identical), there's an entirely different feel to the characters. In the first, he's studious and distracted by her presence (friend's sister) and she's trying to get his attention. However, it's not clear how he's affected, how well these two know each other, whether her rather attraction/distraction is deliberate or innocent. In the second, it's wordier, but we have a better sense of both him and her. You can get a sense of offense from being characterized as studious (and responds with an attack on her perceived frivolousness). Clearly, they know each other as more than just passing acquaintances. Just as clearly, she has some knowledge of her effect on him and is doing it deliberately.

Make it realistic but not too realistic. Real conversations between real people are, largely, dull. If you recorded your conversations with everyone you spoke to during the day, you'd be nodding off in minutes. We tend to talk inconsequential nonsense a large portion or the time. It's like certain sports - fun to play, dull as dishwater to watch. So, you need to excise those portions from real conversation that don't do anything for the story, for character development, for entertainment. You don't want movie dialog, quite, where (if written well) it's all witty and stuff. But you want a dialog that, if you heard it in a movie or a TV show, wouldn't make you want to switch channels. It's got to sound realistic (like people might actually have this conversation so not wall to wall quips and only significant statements) without sounding like a "typical" conversation with all the trivial nonsense. Again, I can't stress enough reading dialog out loud before you get happy with it. Get an audience if you can, one that will tell you the truth.

Don't say everything. People don't tell everything they're thinking, say everything that comes across their minds (except for a very very small number of irksome folks). So, if your characters explain everything, every key aspect of a situation, every nuance of their emotional state, they won't seem very realistic. People automatically edit. They keep some things secret ("You hurt my feelings by saying that.") or expect people to pick up implications ("Obviously, if someone so incompetent is getting a promotion, she's banging the boss."). If someone is telling another character about a problem, they will likely expect the other to pick up implications or deduce aspects. Expect your reader to do the same. Not too much. Being too cryptic can be frustrating as hell. But, don't fall into the TV Batman mode where you have to explain what happened, what that means and the step by step actions you're going to take to get out of the situation. Act, don't say, if you're going to act anyway.

Dialog is one place you can add "nonessential" writing. What I mean by that is not that you have pages of dialog that don't move the story forward or do anything useful. What I mean is that dialog is a good place to sneak in some humor, for example, even if it isn't essential for moving the story forward. A little lightness and humor can make a book more entertaining and is worthy even as just distraction. Similarly, a little character development or a bit of dialog that foreshadows a character aspect that explains a later action (that might otherwise be hard to comprehend) is time well spent. Your story might survive without it, but, by making it more alive, you can make it better.

Note also that people can comfortably spend time without talking. That speaks, too. Note also that conversations that provide information but don't add interest and character development might be better dealt with by saying, "Between hiccups, she gave him a disjointed account of her adventure. With comforting noises, he wiped her nose with no sign of impatience or confusion despite her digressions into incoherency." I can go through the dialog, but, if my readers already know, I'm not contributing much.

Next, plot.


  • Shakespeare

    I've seen a LOT of writings which lack any dialogue for chapters--and when dialogue springs up, it's rote crap like, "How are you doing?" and "Is Cathy in?" Blecccchhh.

    Writing in the dramatic form is a great exercise for creating good dialogue. One is forced to rely completely on what characters are saying to each other, and that forces the information about character, situation, and plot to come out of the characters' mouths.

  • Stephanie Barr

    Agreed, though, to be honest, I've heard some pretty stilted dialogue in a dramatic venue as well. But it shouldn't be.

    I used to spell dialogue like that,too. Still prefer to but one of my spellcheckers kept complaining so I fell out of the habit.


  • Project Savior

    A note on dialect, you can give speakers dialect using certain terms from different regions.
    "Oh ya," upper midwest.
    "I reckon" lower midwest or midland
    "Not for nothing." Mid Atlantic
    "For sure" California
    These are sayings people identify with different regions of the country and will remind the reader were the character is from.

  • Jeff King

    It’s a fine line between dialog over kill and absence… a good mix of dialog, description and narration are key to “good” writing.
    I love what you have shared here; it’s clear, somewhat concise and conveyed easily, so I can learn from what you say.

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