by Diana Dominguez
You’ll notice that a lot of this discussion is based on my own experience — I have added a couple of good resource sites, but dialogue has always been one of my particular strong points, so I hope you don’t mind if I share my own experiences.
I think, personally, that dialogue is an extremely important part of writing a novel. Think back to having to read, say, Charles Dickens, with his pages of exposition, description, and explanations of characters’ thoughts. Nothing against Charles Dickens — after all, he is a classic writer — but for another time, when writing conventions were different. I want to hear the characters tell me their story. Obviously, description and internal monologue are important to moving a story forward, but too much of that bogs a story down.
Anne Lamott, in BIRD BY BIRD, says: "One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t." I think that sums it up perfectly.
So, how do you include dialogue that (1) reveals character, (2) moves the story along, and (3) provides important information without sounding "forced"?
One of the best pieces of dialogue advice I ever got was from a creative writing teacher several years ago. Dialogue in fiction should sound real, but not be real.
What does this mean? Most "real" conversations are incredibly fragmented, convoluted, and, generally, not very well organized. People talk out of turn, they finish someone else’s thoughts, they interrupt, they go back to a previous subject without clear speech markers, and most people don’t talk in these great streams of lucid language (there’s a lot of stopping, starting, hmmm-ing, uh-ing, and you-know-ing). We also tend to repeat things, and real conversations get seriously bogged down in trivialities that don’t add much to the main subject. Really listen to a conversation going on around you some time, and you’ll see what I mean.
Transcribing one of these conversations verbatim into writing can make for an extremely confusing scene and very frustrated readers. Instead, a fiction writer’s job is to take that "real" conversation and do some essential editing — What is the important subject? What moves the scene along? What speech mannerisms are important to understanding a speaker’s emotional state or hidden personality quirks?
Anne Lamott suggests going out on "dialogue" hunting expeditions at the grocery store, at the bank, or other public places and "recording" (mentally) the conversations you hear around you. Then, try to write them down as accurately as possible (as close to verbatim as possible), and finally, edit that conversation so that it sounds real, but isn’t "true to messy reality" (a great line from her, I think.)
Dialogue should advance the plot: the death of any scene is to have dialogue that goes nowhere, or gets bogged down in trivialities or minutae that could be better explained in a short expository ("telling") paragraph. These expository paragraphs could be broken up by snippets of the actual dialogue that is important for readers actually to "hear." Perhaps you have a character who checks in with her mother on a daily basis to let her know how things are, or to find out the latest news from her end. You probably don’t want to write out the whole dialogue between the two of them because it will run the risk of sounding too trivial and small-talkish. So, you write out most of the information exchanged between the two in a short paragraph in which you list the things they talked about. But, in the middle of it all, the mother says something that shocks the daughter, and it’s important for the reader to hear exactly what is said and how the mother conveys this piece of information, and equally important for the reader to "listen in" on the daughter’s reaction. Eventually, the conversation turns back to more "gossip," and you can go back to writing out a "telling" paragraph about those things that also might include the internal monologue the daughter is having — she is listening to her mother go back to nonchalantly explaining the gossip of the area, and the daughter is half-listening to the mother prattle on but still ruminating on what the mother divulged (this could further the story here as well, as this might set up some kind of action/decision the daughter must make in response to the news — Karrie’s scene and sequel stuff).
In the above example, the conversation can definitely move the plot along — it lets the reader in on some development in the plot. You can reveal character here because the daughter is shocked and can’t dismiss the news the mother gave (she’s concerned about this development; it’s part of her nature to be a "fixer-upper"; it enrages her and it shows that she’s easily offended — whatever the case may be). On the mother’s side, we see that she may be a little flighty (unaware of how such news will affect her daughter), or this kind of thing doesn’t bother her the same way it does her daughter (she’s a more forgiving person than her daughter) etc. Depending on what kind of personalities you’ve given your characters, this is also a way to convey information vital to the plot without having it sound "forced" — as it should be perfectly natural for the mother to reveal such news to the daughter because of their relationship. However, if this is something the mother wouldn’t normally do, then this would sound forced and out of character — so it’s a matter of knowing your characters in order to use dialogue effectively.
Another way to reveal character through dialogue is to be consistent with the way characters speak. Most writing teachers/advice books will advise (especially beginning) writers not to write dialect (unless they can do it really well). True dialect is very hard to write well enough for readers to not feel frustrated. Instead, dialect can be approximated by making some small adjustments to the written speech — for instance, adding certain colloquialisms to that character’s dialogue, tacking on certain interjections that seem typical of a certain dialect (without having it sound stereotypical), changing the grammar structure around just enough to hint at non-standard speech.
Obviously, part of conveying dialogue effectively is to know the speech conventions of the time your characters inhabit. A Victorian maiden certainly wouldn’t be saying "yeah, sure I’d like tea", and a teenager in a California high school in 1999 wouldn’t be saying "It would be such a pleasure to accompany you to our prom." But, for each of these different periods, there are variations in the way people spoke so that you can get different character traits across.
Also, keep in mind that "real" speech is rarely spoken in complete sentences. When you write dialogue, unless it is a way of characterizing a certain character, try to keep in mind that "complete sentence" rules of grammar don’t necessarily apply. We answer questions, usually, in fragments. We speak in phrases, we often drop certain words because we don’t really need them to convey our ideas, and we usually don’t have these long streams of conversation — break it up; have you characters interrupt each other from time to time; this conveys the rapidity that sometimes happens in conversations, especially when those conversations get animated.
"This for me?" (instead of the grammatically correct "Is this for me?")
"For what you did the other day." (fragment)
"I wasn’t expecting any–" (interrupted)
"Just a small token, that’s all." (fragment)
"Well, anytime you need–" (interrupted)
"We’re even now?" (statement in form of question — not standard grammatically)
"–anymore help . . . sure. Yeah. Even." (resumed speech/self-interrupted, and just string of words)
One big problem is giving each character a different voice so they don’t all sound the same. Some beginning or consistently bad writers overuse "tags" to make sure readers don’t get confused as to who is speaking — but good dialogue that reveals character shouldn’t need constant tags — unless you’ve got a room full of characters at a party and you need to keep them straight
One way I do this is to make sure each character has certain little speech mannerisms included. For instance, if you have a teenager and a mom speaking, the teen might always use "cool" or say "yeah" instead of "yes." The mom will use language that’s a bit more standard (unless you’re writing about a mom that’s trying to be like a teen, but then her speech should sound "contrived"). The mom doesn’t have to sound like a grammar book — but she shouldn’t sound like a mumbling teenager, either. For instance, if the teen asked the mother "Can I go to the mall with Amy?", the mom probably wouldn’t say "Yeah, whatever." Instead, she might say "Okay" or "All right" or "I suppose so" or "Sure, but only if you’ve finished your homework." etc.
Here’s another way this might work: If you have a character who is a little rough around the edges, that character might consistently drop the "g" sound at the end of certain "ing" words: "Are you goin’ to the mall today?" Or, a truly uncultured person might use really non-standard language: "I ain’t goin’ nowhere with you, so don’t think of askin’ me."
Or, perhaps you have a character who uses a few choice curse words — but your other character doesn’t (or uses rather tame ones). You don’t want to suddenly have your "tame" character start cursing like a dock worker. And you wouldn’t want your "cursing" character to suddenly start saying things like "Gosh" or "Darn" when he/she usually uses stronger language. (This works well to keep characters separate in a heated conversation; your "cursing" character will pepper his/her speech with choice words. Your "tame" character shouldn’t. However, your "tame" character might get so riled up at a certain point that he/she suddenly uses a stronger curse word, but it should seem a bit shocking to both characters, and it can actually reveal a lot about both characters — that he/she got that angry reveals the depth of emotion coming out of this person, and it can also help the other character realize this, too.)
Another way I help keep characters straight if their speech patterns are too close to really tell apart consistently, is to add short sentences of "action" immediately after (instead of actual tag lines):
"But, you said I could go." She plopped down on the chair and slapped her notebook on the table. (This tells us it’s the teen who is obviously not happy with this change in plans.)
"Well, I’ve changed my mind." (We don’t need a tag or action line here, as we should be able to tell that this is the other character answering the disappointed teen.)
Joanne Reid’s lesson on dialogue pretty much says the same thing, and it’s well written. Here’s the URL: http://www.reporters.net/jbreid/novel10/four10weeks.htm
Alicia Rasley has a great "dazzling dialogue" tip page which is concise and easy to follow. I recommend it: http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/artdialogue.htm
In fact, Alicia Rasley’s site is truly excellent.
One of the best ways to learn about good dialogue, in my opinion, is to read good dialogue. One of my personal favorite dialogue writers is Anne Tyler ACCIDENTAL TOURIST is fascinating for just that; Tyler nails each of her characters so well — you instantly know which character is speaking.
1) "Eavesdrop" on a real conversation, then edit it for the page (the way Anne Lamott suggests).
2) Write a scene between two characters that is solely dialogue — try to get speech differences down so that a reader can follow which character is speaking. Don’t add tag lines except the very first time each character enters the conversation. From that point on, the scene should evolve only through dialogue. Can you make enough of a distinction between the two through speech cues? Can you reveal important information to advance the story effectively?
3) Rewrite the above scene with "action" cues — no traditional "he said/she said" tag lines. Can you reveal what the characters are feeling through action alone. (in other words, no "she said angrily" etc.)
DISCUSSION FOR WRITING GROUPS
1) What problems or successes have you had with dialogue writing? Share your experiences on this.
2) How do you determine what kind of dialogue patterns your characters should have? What kind of preparation do you do?
3) For those writing historical fiction, how do you research what your characters will sound like?
4) What books/authors have you read that you feel do dialogue exceptionally well? Which ones have you read that don’t do it well?
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. Vintage Anchor Publishing, 1995.
Rasley, Alicia. ‘Article of the Month: Dazzling Dialogue Tips,’ Writer’s Corner http://www.sff.net/people/alicia/artdialogue.htm
Reid, Joanne. Write a Novel in 10 Weeks: Dialogue, http://www.reporters.net/jbreid/novel10/four10weeks.htm