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Greetings, Hello, Welcome, etc. — /and/ — Proper Dialogue

June 7, 2011

About a year ago I started a blog chronicling my personal journey through the arduous but fulfilling process of writing a novel. The blog failed miserably, as all of my attempted blogs have failed miserably before that. The reason for this is that I truthfully hate talking about myself. Every time I start some sort of a journal I can’t help but wonder, God, does anyone really care about what I did today? Do they care that I made some great revelation about some aspect of writing that is only relevant or interesting to me? Do they care that I added a measly 500 word chunk to my latest chapter or that I can’t come up with a name for my sun god? No matter how I try to build up my confidence, the answer to these questions is inevitably no. And so I give up and go back to wishing I had something important to say.

Through trial and error what I have discovered is that while I hate talking about myself, I do love talking, and I think in some cases it is possible for me to actually be interesting. So I’m starting over. I’m no longer going to try to talk about my day-to-day progress because frankly that is boring. But I do have something to say about writing, a number of things, actually, and darn it but I intend to say them.

So here’s the beginning.

Today I am going to talk about dialogue.

Dear god, I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked to critique someone’s work and have thought to myself, Who the hell talks like that? It’s clunky, it’s awkward, it’s forced, it’s too formal, it’s unbelievable. If you try to read it out loud and your tongue stumbles, your character probably ran into the same problem.

Now, no one ever said writing realistic dialogue is easy, but if you can’t do it, then chances are your writings is not going to be very successful, unless you’re writing some weird experimental descriptive piece where no one ever talks. So try. Try really hard.

If your characters speak with excessive formality, if they use a lot of cumbersome words or archaic language, there had better be a really good reason. Most people speak casually in normal conversation, and even when speaking formally, the words still need to flow well or I won’t believe they said it.

Here is my advice for doing this properly:

1. Read your written conversations out loud.
If I had my way, every amateur writer would do this for every piece of dialogue they write. It is hands down the best way to see how believable the dialogue is. Dialogue should sound natural. If it doesn’t sound right, you need to change something.

2. Picture each conversation as a movie scene.
Plan out the blocking. What is each character doing as they speak? What are their facial expressions? How are they positioned? The whole point is to add realism to the conversation. Conversations are more than just words spoken at each other. Environment and body language are all part of the experience. Now, you don’t need to bog the reader down with details, but the clearer the scene is in your head, the better you can portray it to the reader.

3. Speaking of bogging the reader down with detail, you don’t need to use an adjective for every line.
“Said” works just fine, or “asked,” or “responded”. If you do it right, the reader can infer tone from the dialogue itself. This is called showing, not telling. Save your adjectives for moments when it’s important. That way they stand out, and are therefore stronger.

4. Give each character a voice.
Character development is as much about giving each character a voice as it is about giving each character an opinion. It’s not enough to have a character have his or her own ideas about something in a conversation. People usually also have their own speech patterns, verbal quirks that make them unique.

An example:
One of my main problems with the Chronicles of Narnia books is that while the Pevensie children all have very different opinions and tend to argue a lot, they all sound exactly the same. You can tell who’s talking by what they’re saying but not how they’re saying it, and even then the difference is not distinctive enough. As a result, most of their dialogue is just boring. I don’t get as much a sense of character from them as I would like.

People do not all sound the same. They may pick up speech patterns from those around them, but if two characters are going to sound identical, they should sound “uniquely identical” – that is, rather than the dialogue being monotonous, the reader can tell that they’ve spent a lot of time together because they both have the same verbal quirks.

Pet Peeve Time!
OK, so, personal pet peeve: I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, when people use the word “hissed.” As in,

“How dare you?” Drizelda hissed.

People rarely actually hiss. It’s not something we tend to do. In fact, doing so would sound really weird. How can you hiss something like “How dare you?” if it doesn’t even have any “s”‘s in it? I know what you’re trying to portray, but really, the word is over-used and rarely actually appropriate. And it doesn’t even sound good. In my opinion, it’s an amateur word to use. Snakes hiss. Teapots hiss. Pick a better word. /end rant



From → General Advice

  1. I never thought about the ‘hiss’. I suppose ‘said scathingly’ or ‘venomously’ would be good replacements.
    Now, every time I read ‘hissed’, I’m going to imagine them ACTUALLY hissing. And it will probably ruin many a good book. Oh well.

    • I never really thought about it either until someone else pointed it out to me, and now it really bugs me.

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