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Good dialogue drives a narrative forward, but it’s important that good dialogue, while appearing realistic, is not an exact replica of true conversation. Good dialogue has all the feel of reality, without any of the ums and ahs. It’s clear who’s speaking, what they’re saying and what they mean (which are sometimes two different things), and it’s connected to the environment around it.
In this fortnight we’ll be exploring how dialogue can go awry and in a series of lessons, examples, audio and exercises we will take you through how you can work your dialogue into something that not only engages the characters but the reader!
TOPIC ONE: Getting Dialogue Right – An Audio From Kim
Listen or download the audio for this section here!
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TOPIC TWO: Common Dialogue Problems
Dialogue is a tricky beast and needs to not only take into account the speaking, but the action that is happening around the speakers, as well as the interruptions and reactions of other characters. Let’s talk about some common problems with dialogue in first drafts:
This is the biggest dialogue issue for writers. Penning arguments can be a lot of fun, but reading an argument may find the characters dissolving into a shouting match, which will sound quite hysterical.
Writers will rush these off, caught up in the to and fro of accusations. Important exchanges must always be planned carefully in advance, mapping out the start and end and what plot reveals occur along the way. When analysing dialogue, ensure it’s not over the top, makes sense and is proceeding in some logical fashion. Good planning of the timing of these turns and shifts, and the character’s big revelations, creates the illusion of a runaway conversation with none of the unnecessary garble.
In first person point of view, overheard scenes are a handy tool to broaden the protagonist’s knowledge and provide more detailed information about action. However, this device works only if there are as many deficits as benefits to the character when they’re overhearing the dialogue. If it happens at exactly the right moment it may seem too convenient. Additionally, environment impacts dialogue and meaning, so consider the implications. Characters having a heated discussion in a library would differ greatly to characters on a busy street corner.
So if a character is crouching outside a window listening to his parents talking about sending him to military school, remove a convenience: have him miss half the conversation; or have a bus go past at a key moment; or have him infer or misunderstand something. This is more realistic and written to suit the story, not the author.
Different Strokes For Different Folks
Everybody reveals and conceals their background and personal history by the way they speak. You speak differently to a person across the world, in a different time period, and even people of a different age. Characters should sound age, class, and education appropriate. A truck driver woos differently from an English professor. “Hey, luv, how ‘bout it?” is the same sentiment as, “I wonder if you’d like to discuss Keats over coffee?” But the way it’s said reveals a lot about the character.
In saying that, don’t go overboard with the visual phonetics. When writing characters with a strong accent, it’s enough to write, “Ah, what is this?!” he asked in a strong French accent. Avoid spelling out how you think the accent sounds as it can disorient the reader.
When writing a historical novel, avoid historically accurate dialogue for clarity reasons. To give you an audible example of this, when Cate Blanchett played Elizabeth the First, she spoke in a proper English accent which isn’t how it would have sounded back then. But if they’d gone for exactly how it sounded they would have lost half their audience. It’s the same thing when you see it written on the page.
In a way, a reader is not looking for the actual truth, but some representation of the truth, enough to give a feel for the character.
This is where you get so carried away with writing the dialogue that you lose a sense of the setting and the viewpoint character’s internalizations. Readers need to know what they’re thinking and feeling and their reactions to their environment and what’s being said. Those kind of long, unanchored dialogue exchanges just lift off the page and invite readers to skim rather than engage.
Use beats of action and description to break up dialogue. When you are out in the world, watch what kind of physical beats people use while speaking. Do they spread their hands, tilt their heads, or check their watches? Don’t just have them all shrugging and nodding throughout.
Attributions/ Dialogue Tags
Please just use ‘said’ most of the time. Don’t have people ‘grin’ or ‘grimace’ their sentences. Don’t have them do things they can’t physically do; I have yet to ‘grin’ a sentence successfully. If you have a lot of variety in how you attribute dialogue to a character you start to throw readers out of the story. ‘Said’ has become almost as invisible as inverted commas. ‘Asked’ and ‘answered’ are fine, but the majority should be ‘said’. Or indicate who the speaker is by putting in a physical beat.
Dialogue is one of the most punctuation heavy areas in writing. Look at the below examples to be sure that you do and can use the correct punctuation. We grow up learning about how to punctuate, but more importantly we read work that has been correctly punctuated most of the time. Incorrect punctuation can cause the reader to focus on the marks around the words, rather than the images and ideas that the words ought to be creating.
|Don’t use double punctuation marks|
|“I don’t want milk!”, Mary screamed.||“I don’t want milk!” Mary screamed.|
|“You think I don’t know how to make a coffee?,” said Frank.||“You think I don’t know how to make a coffee?” said Frank.|
|Use a comma, not a full stop between dialogue and attribution|
|“She looked a little edgy.” Said John.||“She looked a little edgy,” said John.|
|Frank said. “I don’t know what you expected.”||Frank said, “I don’t know what you expected.”|
|Don’t run sentences into one another|
|“Mary, you will have your coffee shortly,” Frank turned his attention back to the sandwich.||“Mary, you will have your coffee shortly.” Frank turned his attention back to the sandwich.|
|Mary maintained her sour demeanour, “’Shortly’ is still too long.”||Mary maintained her sour demeanour. “’Shortly’ is still too long.”|
|Breaking up dialogue with description can be tricky to punctuate correctly|
|“You took forever last time.” Said Mary. “And you put milk in it.”||“You took forever last time,” said Mary. “And you put milk in it.”|
|“You took forever last time,” said Mary, “and you put milk in it.”|
(Note: though these examples use double quotation marks “”, many novels and short stories today use single quotation marks ‘’. Either is acceptable, as long as you use them consistently. When you are submitting a piece of work it is worth finding out what the house style is -do they want submission using double or single – and format accordingly)
Read all your dialogue aloud. There is nothing like hearing where all the awkward phrases and pauses are. Do this for every bit of dialogue and it will be better by the end.
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Good dialogue drives a narrative forward, but it’s important that good dialogue, while appearing realistic, is not an exact replica of true conversation. Good dialogue gives a refined representation of true speech. We want to get a sense of the character and their intentions from what they say, not what the writer ‘tells’ the reader.
This exercise will:
- Teach you to reveal your character’s background without ‘info dumping’ their life story,
- Get you to consider the importance of phrasing and how different characters use different vocabularies and,
- Help you to expand your characterisation.
WHAT TO DO:
A character wants a drink of water. Write the dialogue representing this request from each of the following characters, revealing their background in the process:
- A French man on his first holiday in an English-speaking country,
- A 16th-century aristocrat at the dinner table,
- A cockney speaking over the noise at a pub,
- An overtired two-year-old ,
- A nervous student who has to ask her crabby teacher.
Post your dialogue in the Dialogue Forum. How have your peers done it differently? What have they revealed as a result?
Then consider how your protagonist would say it and share this with your peers.
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