Crafting Dialogue–or Avoiding it Altogether

Photo by Brian Lary from freeimages.com

My TV-watching habits, well documented in my earlier stint as an RMFW blog contributor, have started me thinking a lot about dialogue recently. Going to the movies last night kicked those thinky thoughts into high gear, so today I’m going to translate those thinky thoughts into writey thoughts.

Many new writers think that dialogue should mirror the way people talk in real life. Well, in a way it should, but in most ways it shouldn’t, because when people talk in real life they’re quite often repetitive, stutter, and boring. Not that what people say isn’t important, but when you’re writing a book you don’t really want lines and lines of dialogue discussing how much toilet paper you really need, where it’s cheapest, and whether the generic brands are suitable for every day use. In real life, this is an Important Conversation. In a book, not so much.

I think the ways in which dialogue should mirror real life are mostly about speakability and appropriateness to the situation. I get thrown out of a story bigtime when someone says a line of dialogue that I can’t imagine someone actually saying. Usually this is because the dialogue is too precise, too grammatically correct, or artificial sounding. If I try to say it out loud, it just sounds off. Reading dialogue aloud helps with this. If it doesn’t come trippingly off the tongue, it might need some revision. (I’m reminded of Harrison Ford’s comment about dialogue in the original Star Wars: “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it.”)

So, this is a good theory. My TV-watching habits have given me some examples that both break these rules and follow them, but still manage to be great examples of good dialogue.

Aaron Sorkin is often touted as a great TV writer because his style is immediately recognizable. I’ve often argued (mostly to myself) that this doesn’t make him that great a TV writer, because it’s my feeling that stylistic quirks shouldn’t pop up in TV dialogue (and probably not in written dialogue, either) unless those stylistic quirks are particular to the character. Stylistic quirks in dialogue that reflect the author tend to bother me, because it makes the reader immediately aware of the author behind the curtain.

I used to watch Sports Night back in the day when it was on. That was a great show. I wish it hadn’t gotten cancelled so soon. But especially toward the end of its run, every character sounded like Aaron Sorkin to me. Later, I started watching Studio 60, and I lasted about two episodes because the Aaron Sorkin-ness of the dialogue permeated every character and every line. That just didn’t work for me. (I haven’t watched West Wing, but based on clips I get the impression the balance might have been much better on that show.) Basically, my thought is that if every character sounds like you, the writer, then you, the writer, aren’t doing a great job of inhabiting and individualizing your characters. (I could be wrong. After all, Aaron Sorkin isn't exactly unsuccessful.)

My next example is Hannibal. If you really focus on the dialogue—the structure and word choice, length of sentences, etc.—you quickly realize that nobody ever talks like that. It’s a very stylistic approach to dialogue, but the characters don’t all speak in the same cadences. Nobody on that show talks like somebody would in real life, but they don’t all talk like Bryan Fuller, either. But the dialogue is so stylized that a lesser cast of actors would have a very hard time pulling it off. This isn’t a criticism. It’s just an observation. In fact, the writing here is so well structured and so well acted that I didn’t even tune in to the overly stylized dialogue until partway into the second season. If you can pull off that kind of charged, carefully weighted dialogue in a piece that is, at its core, genre fiction, then you’ve done something pretty damn impressive. Hats off to you, Mr. Fuller. (And Mads and Hugh and Gillian and everybody else in the cast...)

The next two examples—and they’ll be short—are examples of lack of dialogue. This is something else that’s hard to pull off in a story or a book without relying on POV to carry your narrative, but I think it’d be a great exercise to try just to see what you can tease out of yourself.

Wall-E is a fabulous example here. About the first third of the movie has no dialogue whatsoever, but during that time the film manages to do a lot of heavy lifting, including some major worldbuilding and introduction of two characters with very distinct personalities. We’re able to immediately tune in to the vibe of the world, the story, and the two main characters without either of them saying an intelligible word. Would this be hard to pull off in a book? Sure, but if you try it, I bet you’ll learn a ton about how you structure your stories and whether or not you’re using dialogue as a worldbuilding/characterization crutch.

The second example is Logan, which I saw last night, and which is still burning up my brain because holy crap what a freaking good movie go see it immediately. Without dishing any spoilers, there’s a character in that movie who doesn’t speak a word until about the last third of the film, and yet we’re able to tune in immediately and know exactly what’s up with them from the moment they appear on screen. Everything is projected through body language and interaction with the other characters. Again, hard to pull off in a book? Maybe. But try it. Body language is a difficult thing to convey in narrative, and if you try to present a character using only that tool out of your toolbox, I bet you’ll learn a lot and end up with even more weapons in your arsenal.

I’m going to end this with a quick moment of Blatant Self-Promotion… My latest book, Call Me Zhenya (which has a lot of dialogue because I like dialogue) is on sale for .99 right now at Amazon, so this would be a great time to grab it! I promise you’ll get at least a dollar’s worth of entertainment out of it.

(Thank you for your patience with this quick moment of Blatant Self-Promotion.)

Adventures in Genre Writing Lesson Six: Dialogue

Dialogue – Putting Words in Your Characters’ Mouths
By Jeanne C. Stein

Last month we looked at plotting and defining our inciting incident. In this lesson we’ll touch on one of the most important building blocks in writing: Dialogue.

There are lots of authors who excel at dialogue, but none better than mystery writer, the late Robert B. Parker.

The first thing you notice when you open one of his books is the white space.

White space? What’s that?

It’s all that space on the right margin of a page when the four deadly sins of dialogue are excised. What are they?

1. Info-dumps.
2. Unnecessary attributes.
3. Unnecessary adverbs.
4. Clichés.

White space occurs when characters speak realistically.

Parker is so adept at realistic dialogue, that he practically tells his entire story in dialogue. I suggest if you aren’t familiar with Parker, you pick up one of his books and see what I mean.

If we start with the basics, dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters. It should be relevant, advance the plot and reveal something about the character speaking—his emotion or state of mind. Those things are obvious to most of us. What isn’t so obvious is how we actually translate it to the page.

Let’s look at some examples of dialogue that illustrate the four deadly sins I mentioned above.

1. Info-dumps. This is also called “As you know, Bob…” You have two characters meeting for the first time in your book. They have a history. Their meeting involves something that has already taken place, something the reader may or may not know. The conversation goes like this.

“Hello, Jack.”

“Hello, Eddy.”

“Jack, did you hear what happened to our good friend, Jim?”

“You mean the terrible attack that landed him in the hospital with two broken legs and three cracked ribs that occurred just last week when he was caught by rogue demons on his way home?”

Have you ever heard anyone talk like that? Of course not. But it’s seen a lot in unpublished manuscripts and sadly, in some books.

How do you fix it?

“Hey, Jack. Did you hear about Jim?”

“Couldn’t believe it. Cracked ribs and two broken legs. Those demons are out of control.”

2. Unnecessary attributes. May not even need to give you an example, but just in case:

“Hey, Jack,” Mary said.

“Hey, Mary,” Jack replied.

“Where are you going?” Mary inquired.

“To see Jim. As you know, he was attacked by demons last week,” Jack answered. “I’m bringing him a protection charm.”

“Can I go, too?” Mary asked.

“Sure.” Jack replied. “He’ll enjoy the company.”

If you have two characters on stage, we need only the first tags (and sometimes not even that) to follow the dialogue.

3. Unnecessary adverbs. Again, may be obvious. I’ll use the same example as above.

“Hey, Jack,” Mary chirped excitedly.

“Hey, Mary,” Jack replied happily.

“Where are you going?” Mary inquired quizzically.

“To see Jim. As you know, he was attacked by demons last week,” Jack answered soberly. “I’m bringing him a protection charm.”

“Can I go, too?” Mary asked hopefully.

“Sure,” Jack replied, nodding enthusiastically. “He’ll enjoy the company.”

Dialogue itself should reveal the character’s emotions without need of adverbial helpers. In fact, as a general rule, omit adverbs from ALL your prose. If you’re doing your job, you don’t need them.

4. Clichés

People use clichés because clichés are descriptive shortcuts, which is one way to say, they are phrases whose meanings we recognize immediately. They convey universal understanding. Not necessarily a bad thing it itself.

Every cliché was once fresh and witty. Over time, though, some have become stale and will mark you as a lazy writer, especially if overused. When you find yourself writing, quick as a bunny, try to rewrite it. Find a fresh and different way to say the same thing.

A rule of thumb for clichés is that if you think you’ve read it before, try rewriting it.

Bestselling romance author Sharon Mignerey gave us the following acronym for elements of good dialogue: SCRAPE.

Dialogue should reflect:
S - Setting and Subtext
C - Character Consistency
Dialogue should be:
R -Revealing and Relevant
A - Atmospheric and Appropriate

Well done dialogue:
P - Propels Plot
E - Evokes Emotion
-© 1999 Sharon Mignerey (used with permission)

One other aspect of dialogue that can be troublesome is conveying dialect. If you have a character with a distinct pattern of speech or an accent, it’s tricky to carry that off through an entire book. Better to give us a sample when we first meet the character, remind us of it as the story progresses, but write most passages without reverting to the dialect. A hint of the character’s Scottish brogue or Irish lilt or that he has a speech impediment is all that’s needed to remind the reader.

All this is basic, certainly. But good dialogue reflects character and moves our plot forward so much better than long passages of narration. It’s fluid. It reveals our character’s mind set and conveys emotion. It keeps the reader engaged.

Another author who has mastered story telling through dialogue is Jackie Kessler. Her protagonist is Jesse Harris, a succubus-turned-human. Here’s a brief example of dialogue from her second “Hell on Earth”  book, The Road to Hell:

“Oh,” Daun said. “Never mind. I get it.”

I turned back to face Daun, who was straddled over my hips, watching me. “Get what?”

“You’re distracted.”

“Am not.”

“No? You’re crying.”

I was? Shit. Dabbing at my leaking eyes, I said, “Sorry, I’m okay now.”

“Uh huh.”

“I am. Really. Have at it…”

Lots of white space. No unnecessary tags. Conveys emotion. Reads smoothly, especially aloud.

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So, in summary, to make dialogue sparkle:

Keep colloquialisms and slang to a minimum.

Use a natural cadence and manner.

Be fresh with your dialogue, rewrite clichés.

Read your dialogue aloud to make sure it sounds natural.

Next up: Conflict. What is it? Why is it important?