Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Darkness? Drama? Description? Let's Do Dialogue

Lots of good "D" words for a writer.  But mastering dialogue is key to making a work move.

I recently read a friend's (self-published) memoir.  Ugh!  Bones of a good story there, but it was all told.  No dialogue sections whatsoever.  Just page after mind-numbing page of the author's not terribly interesting voice.

"I was so disappointed," she confided.  "I know the author has talent, but he insisted on doing it his own way."

Her friend sipped her tea and nodded.  "It was pretty bad, wasn't it?"

"Do we tell him we read it, and tell him honestly what we thought?  I know that would hurt his feelings."

"But if we keep making excuses for not having read it, that'll hurt his feelings, too."

The first woman shook her head.  "Let me know if you come up with any good ideas for how to avoid ruining a friendship over this."

Not saying the above is the most brilliant dialogue in the world, but sections of dialogue help us understand who the characters are.  It can give us conflict, as one character wants one thing in a scene, and another wants something different.  If a third party is present, that can bring in some interesting dynamics.

Good dialogue is a vital part of Show, Don't Tell.  Even in a first person memoir, there should be sections of dialogue.

Nathan Bransford brings up my pet peeve in dialogue; using it as a tool to reveal backstory.

1. Good dialogue is not weighed down by exposition

When the dialogue is carrying exposition and trying to tell the reader too much, characters end up saying a lot of very unnatural and unwieldy things. You'll see things like:

"Remember that time we stole the frog from Miss Jenkins and she ended up giving us two hours of detention and that's how we met?"
"Yeah, totally! And now we're in 6th Grade and have to dissect frogs for our science project, which is due tomorrow. I don't know how we're going to get it finished in time."

So much of this dialogue would already be already apparent to the characters. They'd know how they met without having to talk about it, they'd know they're in 6th grade without having to talk about it, they'd know the science project is due without talking about it. So it's very clear to the reader that they're not talking to each other: they're really talking to the reader.

This is also known as "As You Know, Bob."  As in, "As you know, Bob, you've been my father ever since I was born."   As a writer, we need to search out our dialogue, eliminate any AYKB's, and make sure that if we need to bring out backstory via dialogue, we have one character explaining to another character who was not likely to have been there.

Dialogue needs to trim the fat, and not sound exactly like real speech.  From Novel-writing Help
Want to know the most important thing about writing dialogue? If it sounds like a conversation you would hear in the real world, you've gone horribly wrong somewhere.
The next time you are on a train or sitting on a bench in the street, just listen to two people talking...
  • They will speak over each other all the time.
  • They'll say "um" and "er" a lot.
  • They'll jump from one topic to another and back again with no warning.
All of which is fine in the real world - but hopeless for the purposes of dialogue in a novel.
Writing dialogue isn't about replicating real speech. It's about giving an impression of it, of improving upon it. Put simply, dialogue in a novel must be so much better than real speech.

photo by ohhector at Flickr

You might notice in classic works of Lit'rature, a character may emote in a long, rambling monologue that goes on for several pages.  Don't try this today; not even one full page should be dialogue by one person.  Even Tom Hanks had Mr.Wilson in Cast Away.  If you have to have you characters talk to a volleyball, or a fire hydrant, do it!

Scared?  Don't be.  Because one of the good things about writing bad dialogue, is it's one of the easiest things to fix.  Just go ahead, write your first draft, then go back and make it tighter.

What are your favorite things about dialogue?
Your pet peeves?