Thursday, April 4, 2013

Dramatic dialogue

"Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms." ~ Alfred Hitchcock

Dialogue serves many purposes in a story. It reveals character motivations, setting and back story. It paces, sets mood and creates or intensifies conflict and suspense.  What a character says, or doesn't say, propels the plot forward in one of the most entertaining and natural ways.

Writing believable dialogue comes easily to some, but others have to work hard to hone this ever important skill. Here are just a few tips to help and remind.

  • Visualize- I still remember when my son was three and helping me in the garden. He'd scoop up dirt with his little shovel and say: "I gotta put nis dirt into my imadinason so we could eat it." Not only was this super cute, it was insightful. Putting our character into our imaginations and listening to what they say is an excellent way to flush out natural sounding dialogue. All it takes is a little time and a pair of closed eyes. And an imagination, of course. Set your characters into the scene you're working and let them perform. It's like watching a movie. When the credits start to role, you start writing what you heard. And don't forget what you saw. This is an excellent way to mine character traits and actions as well. 
  •  Ditch the straight path- Characters aren't always concerned with the same things. A good way to add intrigue to a scene is to have your characters carry on a conversation that isn't in sync.
          "Love your dress, Deb. Is it new?"
          "Where is he?"
          "I saw a necklace at Downtown Boutique the other day that would go perfectly. Expensive, though."
          "I know you were with him last night."
       
         As Usual, you don't want too much  of a good thing. You wouldn't want an entire novel written with this type of dialogue.
  •  Get trivial- If your characters are detonating a bomb that's about to blow, hands shaking, sweating all over, have them talk about which brand of potato chips is best. Using meaningless chatter can juxtapose tension, in some instances intensifying it, in others creating comedy. Make sure you're accomplishing the right effect for your story.
  • Hush-hush- According to Thomas Carlyle, Silence is more eloquent than words. This holds true when writing dialogue. Silence says a lot. Not only can it be more eloquent, but also more powerful than anything your characters might say.

    "Where were you last night?"
    "Out." He shovels another bite of cereal into his mouth, crunching becoming the only sound for miles. He slows his chew.
    "Were you with Natalie?"
    He won't look her in the eye.
    "You were, weren't you? You were with Natalie."
    When he finally looks up, she catches his bloodshot eyes. The bite on his spoon pauses midway to his mouth, which is clamped shut. But those eyes have never been good at lying.
     
  • Keep'n it real-  If you're characters are three years old, they better sound like three years old.  If they've matured into backwoods loggers, they better sound the part, each in his/her own unique way. Some characters will sound similar to others if they have a similar background and lifestyle and they're around each other a lot. It would make sense, for instance, for siblings to have a similar cadence and vocabulary. But even they will have at least some originality. If you've gotten to know your characters, their speech should come to life spontaneously. If you're struggling with dialogue, you might want to stop and do some character work before you continue.
  • Chop-chop-chop- Something I notice a lot in critique groups/partners, and in my own unedited work, is stilted speech. Everyone starts sounding pompous and wordy. I don't know anyone who walks around saying "I have not had breakfast yet." Or, "I do not love you anymore." Contractions are legal. Use them. Along these same lines, most people speak in shorthand. 

    "Are you going to the dance on Wednesday?" Becomes: "You going to the dance?"

    "I'm going surfing. Do you want to come?" Becomes: "I'm going surfing. Wanna come?"

    Cutting words is often the solution to natural sounding dialogue. The best way to learn to write dialogue well is to listen. Pay attention to rhythms when people talk to and around you. Take note of how everyone's speech differs. Notice what's similar. Soon you'll have a thousand voices in your head, all waiting to be set free.  

Tomorrow's post - Endearing endings
               

18 comments:

  1. I discovered I'm one of those people that dialogue comes easy to, one of my characters talks a lot and I have fun imagining what she's thinking and going to say next... or when she will stop and take a breath - and still your tips help me understand the craft better - thanks

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    1. Thanks, Ida! Writing dialogue is an excellent strength to have. Good for you!

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  2. My D post is on dialogue too. An important part of writing fiction. Great post.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. Cool! We must be in the same groovy groove.

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  3. Balancing dialogue against the behaviors of characters is a master tool. Shirley Jackson is one of my favorite dialogue writers. I can't think of anyone who had her ingenuity for voice, context, and sculpting paragraphs that had no right to be as coherent as they were.

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    1. I love Shirley Jackson, too. She's a good one learn from.

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  4. Love this post, you have some good examples of how to craft dialogue. I like how you broke it down. Sometimes I'm alright with dialogue, other times it's tricky.

    Claire's Writing Log
    Twitter: @ClaireGoverts

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    1. Glad you liked the post, Claire. It seems like every day is a little different where writing is concerned, doesn't it?

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  5. I'm glad! Thanks for reading and commenting. :)

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  6. I like to keep a lot of my character's conversations out of sync because I find that is how it is in many real life conversations and it seems to work better for my dialogue patches

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  7. I agree totally. I like to keep character's conversations as realistic as possible, just with all the boring parts cut out. :)

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  8. I'm always worried that my dialogue doesn't come out right. Matching a person's way of speaking to their character is nerve wracking.

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    1. Sometimes it is for me too. It sort of depends on the character and how well I have a grasp of who they are. I find that usually if I'm having trouble with dialogue, I need to go back and do some more character work.

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  9. Good stuff! I look forward to seeing more.

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    1. Thanks, Rebecca! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

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  10. Thank you for this post. I am always backtracking to edit out all the unnecessary foo-foo words. Looking foward to more of your great tips.

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