15 February, 2012

On Dialogue

"It [speech] serves, as it does in life, to broaden the scope of action; it organizes and extends what people do." ~John Howard Lawson (emphasis mine)

For me, writing dialogue came easily from the start. It may have for you, as well. But, for others, dialogue is the bane of their existence. Even thinking about surrounding a phrase with quotation marks sends them into cold sweats and epic nightmares.
If that's you, chill. Take a deep breath. Relax.
Dialogue is just people talking to one another. In terms of a story, dialogue is people talking to one another in a way that moves the story along. Pretty simple, right?
The great thing is that it doesn't have to be hard. In fact, it isn't when you know the tricks to writing it. Sure, it takes time and practice but what in writing doesn't?
Here are a few tips I've gathered from my own experience and that of others. If you want to learn more, take a look at the resources list I've included below.

1. Be Brief
You know that friend who calls at four in the morning to tell you about the tragedy of her hair going flat and, three hours later, is still describing her stylist's reaction to split ends while you look for a creative way to destroy your phone so that it looks like an accident?
Yeah, don't write like that.
Dialogue should be quick, snappy, and to the point. Your reader doesn't want a dissertation on a given subject. They just want to know what's going on. Give them that. Think about what the purpose of the dialogue is and get to it in as concise a manner as possible. If there is no purpose, get rid of it.
If you ramble, they will leave.

2. Convey Information
Dialogue isn't there to look pretty. It should add to the reader's knowledge of what's going on. This doesn't mean you should just dump back story into a character's speech (rule #1, remember?). You don't want the reader to realize that you're feeding important facts to them. Be natural and spread it out. Readers are smart - they'll remember those little facts as they need them.

3. Be Realistic, Not Real
"Hi, Marty."
"Hi, Tom."
"How are you today?"
"Great. How are you?"
"I'm fine. Nice weather we're having."
"Beautiful weather. The sun is so warm."
"Have you ever seen such a brilliant blue sky?"
If you're ready to pound your computer screen in frustration, congratulations! You have recognized bad dialogue. This is all well and good for a foreign language class but you don't want this in your story. It has no purpose, let alone any information to convey.
You want dialogue that sounds like it could be real, not real conversation.

4. Continue the Action
If you haven't already realized it, dialogue is action. It moves the story forward, gives the characters the means to their goals, and reveals motives.
Marty waved frantically. "Tom! Tom, look, there in the sky."
"I don't want to look," Tom said. His hand shook as he reached into the mailbox.
"But it just - "
"I said I didn't want to look!" Tom slammed the mailbox closed and turned towards his house. Without meaning to, he let his gaze drift upwards, to that hideous yellow orb shining in the blue arc of sky. He shivered. "Too bright."
I could have simply said that the sun was something abnormal to this world and that people in the neighborhood didn't know what to do about its brightness. But that's boring. Dialogue can -and should - introduce excitement, interest, or mystery while entertaining the reader.
You also want to break it up, such as in the above example. You want some indications of what people are doing as they talk. These, like dialogue itself, still need to be driving the story forward or revealing information.
Pull them in with dialogue. Make it your weapon, not a pretty piece of embroidery.

5. Reveal Your Character
Just as in real life, you can tell a lot about a person by the way they talk, how they respond, or if they speak at all. Dialogue in fiction can be used in the same way.
It can also reveal relationships among characters.
Tom, from the above example, might be snippy with Marty but what if Tom's sick wife, whom he dearly loves and worries over, commented on the same thing? Would he respond differently to her? Perhaps he doesn't, which you can use to show that maybe his reaction indicates something deeper that overrides even his love for his wife.
The possibilities are endless. Just remember to be concise and to the point.

6. Don't Overuse Tags
He said/she said are dialogue tags. They're also considered to be invisible to the reader, so are encouraged more than other options. Writing she mumbled/he barked/they chorused is distracting to the flow of a conversation.
Even he said/she said can still be overused, however.
"Tom knows," Marty said.
"The old man doesn't matter," Tara said. "We need to focus on those kids."
"You didn't see the way he looked at me," Marty said.
"If you're backing out, just say so," she said.
See? A bit dull. Try using action tags, too, or foregoing he said altogether.
"Tom knows," Marty said.
"The old man doesn't matter." Tara kept her gaze pinned to the computer screen. "We need to focus on those kids."
"You didn't see the way he looked at me."
The urgency in his tone made her jerk her chin up. "If you're backing out, just say so."

7. Beware the Stereotype
Don't use cliches in dialogue anymore than you would in other areas. Because it's speech, it might even be more recognizable. In the same way, use profanity and slang sparingly. Unless the character has a really good reason to be saying it, you should probably leave it out. These things draw attention away from the story and make the reader focus on the wrong thing.

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