Monday, January 28, 2008

That's What She Said!

by Mackenzie Walton

Dialogue is not unlike Lex Luthor—it can be Super Writer’s best friend or greatest foe. If it’s strong, dialogue can liven up a scene and boost your characterization. But if it’s weak, it can irritate readers and even make them question how well you actually know the characters you’re writing. No writer wants that to happen, so to keep it from happening, there are a number of things one can do.

Consider your characters. Who are they? How old are they? Where are they from? And once you reflect on all of that, the most important part—would they actually talk the way you’re writing them? Does the character successfully sound like a two-hundred-year-old vampire from France or a twenty-year-old co-ed from Alabama, or does he or she sound like Jane Writer from New Jersey? Transitioning from narration to dialogue can be a struggle sometimes, and it is also very easy to slip into dialogue that sounds like the writer rather than the character.

Consider how people actually do and don’t speak. In real life, people tend to speak a lot more informally than they write. So why is it that I’ve read books—yes, plural, books—in which characters don’t use a single contraction? Granted, in fiction there is some idealization of the spoken word—would a hero in a romance novel be all that sexy if he was just an average conversationalist?—but it’s important not to get ridiculous. Chances are if you’ve never with your own ears heard someone use a particular word or sentence structure out loud, your characters shouldn’t be using them either.

Do research. This bit of advice is especially important for someone writing a historical. Speech patterns evolve and words and phrases are coined, then go out of use. It's important that your characters sound authentic to their time period and location. Make sure you read a lot of contemporary sources in your research, not just other novels set in the time period.

This bit of advice need not apply only to historicals, though. It’s really not a bad idea to do some dialogue research no matter what you write. Sure, it might seem pretty silly to think one would need to research how contemporary people talk, but if you’re reading this list in sequence, you probably remember me mentioning books in which characters didn’t use contractions, so evidently there are some writers who’ve been speaking all their lives and don’t know what the heck is going on.

Research in this area is just a matter of simply paying attention—really consider how people talk to you in your day-to-day life. It might help to even to go to a place where diverse people congregate, like a mall, and just listen to how people talk to one another; you might be surprised how teenagers talk amongst themselves, how a pair of women will interact as opposed to a male and female couple, and so forth. If you don’t feel comfortable going out and doing that, watching a well-scripted movie or TV show will do, but remember that the dialogue still might be ultra-idealized.

Make sure each character’s dialogue remains consistent. People might shift from formal to informal speech patterns depending on whom they’re talking to—a character would probably speak to a boss differently than he would to a close friend, for instance—but for the most part, they won’t vary much. Maintain that consistency throughout your story.

Remember that your characters are unique individuals. Even if your characters are similar in age and background, no two people talk exactly the same way—everyone has different quirks in their speak patterns. It’s important that your readers can reasonably ascertain who is whom during conversation without relying fully on dialogue tags.

Don’t overdo it. Too much realism is not necessarily a good thing. For example, I knew a high school teacher who counted how many times his students said ‘like’ during their formal presentations—it was often as many as seventy times during a five-minute speech. Matching that in a YA novel’s dialogue might be realistic, but would it be fun to read?

Be careful with dialect. Dialect can be a lot of fun to write, and it can also be a useful way to reinforce characterization. But be cautious with how you use it. First off, as anyone who read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn knows, dialect can be tricky to decipher sometimes, and it gets tiresome to read aloud every other word just to know what a character’s talking about. Secondly, going overboard could be offensive to people who fit the demographic you’re trying to portray. If you do use dialect, make sure it’s both consistent and accurate, not just how one might think a person from a particular culture sounds.

Consider the scene at hand. Does this scene feature two friends meeting for a cup of coffee or is it an action-packed fight to the death? Thoughtful, in-depth dialogue is probably more appropriate for the former than the latter. Always keep in mind just how much dialogue there should be in a particular scene and what the tone would probably be.

Read your dialogue out loud. Again, does it sound realistic? Do people actually talk like this? Or are you stumbling over stilted sentence structures and odd word choices? Reading out loud can clue you in to problems your internal voice might not pick up on.

This might seem like a lot to keep in mind, and it might seem hard to believe that writing something most people do every day would be so difficult. But it is—and poor dialogue is painfully conspicuous. So don't let it be the kryptonite standing between you and an otherwise strong story.


Tez Miller said...

Thanks for the raucously amusing title for this entry: it reminds me of my favourite episode of Futurama, "Spanish Fry". So many crass jokes! Witty banter between Lurr and Ndnd! Good times...

Have a lovely day! :-)

Barbara Sheridan said...

Read your dialogue out loud.

I'm a believer in "acting"the dialogue. Not necessarily speaking aloud in various character voices (though I tend to do that sometimes when alone), but at least hearing their distinct voices in your hear when reading the scene.

I'm not sure if that makes sense. It's one of those "I know how to do it, but can't quite explain it" things.

RK Sterling said...

"Does the character successfully sound like a two-hundred-year-old vampire from France"

Thank you! This is one of my pet peeves as a reader and as an editor. Why does the aristocratic, centuries old vampire suddenly sound like Dracula from the 'hood?