Thursday, December 30, 2010

Dialogue Dos and Don'ts

First off, thanks for all the great compliments on my book cover. FYI I haven't found publication yet, I just wanted a little inspiration and Ms. Fena Lee offers her services free of charge. ;) You like how I stressed the word yet?? I think for those of us still seeking representation, being positive is essential. So please join me in leaving any negative thoughts behind with 2010.

Back to dialogue.... I believe this is something that improves with writing over the course of time. We don't notice the stilted dialogue in our first drafts because the words convey the message we want. It's only after learning to hone our craft that we can go back and isolate the dialogue, reading it aloud, and picking out unnecessary words and beats to give it a more natural, realistic flow.

One thing I've gotten better about picking out is exposition in dialogue. I was watching a movie the other day and  the delivery of exposition between two of the characters was so obvious my skin crawled. Two years ago I never would've noticed it. I think that's how most stories are--to the untrained eye ( or ear) it's unnoticable and doesn't intrude on the story. But to agents and editors with a fine tuned eye, it's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

Don't worry, I'm not in any way comparing myself to an expert, but I'm becoming better at my craft with each story--which is five in total now. Check out My Projects link to the right to peruse my story blurbs.

Here are some tips on dialogue:

1.  Make sure words and behavior are meaningful. In real life we have meaningless exchanges all the time. But in books, every spoken exchange must advance either the story or our sense of character. Don't write little physical details just for the sake of writing it.

Ex.)    "I really like you," she said, while cutting an orange in half.
(What does an orange have to do with this confession??)

Ex.)    "I really like you," she said, scuffing her feet.
(The scuffing denotes nervousness without having to tell the reader she's nervous.)

The second example is much more effective. Not only does it show the action, it relates to the speaker's words and behavior.

2. Think of real life situations where you'd notice someone's physical behaviors, and those you wouldn't.

Ex.) At a party, two best friends are screaming at each other because one hooked up with the other's crush. You wouldn't care if a lock of hair fell over the right eye or fingernail polish was chipped. You wouldn't care about anything except the exchange of words.

Writing should reflect the intensity of the moment--people (or characters in this case) lose perspective and sense of detail when angry or terrified or overwhelmed.

3. It's much easier to cut physicality down than add to it later. Focusing on the physical forces the writer to vividly imagine the moment--to slow down and understand what characters are thinking, feeling, and/or doing. You must understand them better in order to evoke them for the reader.

4. In many cases you can cut any kind of explanations you've included with dialogue. If you mention an emotion outside of the actual dialogue, chances are you're telling instead of showing. Go back and convey that emotion inside the dialogue only. Of course, by this time we should all know when we use an adverb to modify the spoken action, we are taking away from the dialogue. (no -ly words after the tag... she said forcefully.)

5. Are your dialogue tags varying too much? Using anything other than said, pulls attention away from the actual dialogue. The occasional replied or answered or asked is acceptable, just watch you don't use them too frequently.

6. Read your dialogue aloud!! This is so important. It's so hard to get the true feel of the dialogue without acting it out verbally. I like to pretend I'm reading for an audience and really get into character. I find so many places to trim and/or add contractions. I've found in almost every type of dialogue (unless it's a period piece with proper English) using contractions will smooth out that dialogue and make it more believable. Same holds true for using sentence fragments. People just don't speak in full sentences. Your characters shouldn't either.

7. A good rule of thumb to follow: if you're tempted to change the dialogue, do it. That little voice inside your head is trying to tell you something.

8. Stilted dialogue. Argh! I've been guilty of it on numerous occasions.

Ex.) "But what about the map we found?" I said.  "It says the treasure is buried in the furthest most point, west of the mountain ridges."
      "Good idea," Bart said. "I'll get the men together and we'll follow your lead. I just hope we're able to avoid the Pit of Despair near the Death Mountain Ridges. Men have been lost forever trying to pass over."

Oh my, so stilted. I tried really hard to give you information in the dialogue. The result is an artificial feel that makes it super obvious what I'm trying to do. I'm not letting the characters be natural--I'm forcing them to give information, or exposition, so you'll understand the story. In most cases, the reader is intelligent enough to pick up the pieces and put them together.

9. Unfinished sentences, outright lies, deception. Never underestimate the power. When these techniques are used in dialogue there's a very believable effect. Think of real life exchanges. How many times are we interrupted in mid sentence? Or tell little white lies to avoid real conversation? Sometimes we just outright deceive each other. Maybe we're having a bad day and we pretend we're happy as ever. These little nuances happen all the time. Your characters' dialogue should reflect that.

Thanks to Lauren Oliver Books and Self- Editing for Fiction Writers for these very important points.

So what's in your little dialogue bag of tricks? Any pointers or techniques you'd like to share? I'm all ears ...

19 comments:

LTM said...

these are really great points--esp. the one about leaving out the useless words. (I think it was Nathan Bransford who compared it to cooking vs. raw meat... or something.) I think you covered everything~

And I'm with you on that new year resolution! :o)

Summer Ross said...

I like how you gave us examples. This is a great post for help. Thanks for posting

Catana/Sylvie Mac said...

Nice. I like to use unfinished sentences when there's a lot of emotion. And even a little repetition. People just don't spew out complete, perfectly formed sentences, especially when they're under emotional stress.

Florence said...

My method of crafting dialogue lies in your last line. "I'm all ears."

I have an acute sense of the audio/visual and although I make every other mistake known to the writing world, the worst of which is my horrible spelling ... dialogue seems to come from the conversations in my head.

Love your suggestions, especially reading out loud. I read a cute story about Judy Blume who said she had never published a book that she didn't read out loud to herself each day as she wrote. It is said that all the errors in punctuation can also be "heard" this way.

Thanks for another great post :)

Susan Antony said...

Great post. I am thinking positively with you!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Reading dialogue out loud helped me more than anything.

Mary said...

Great reminders, and examples. BTW- I meant to say earlier I love the cover of your book!

The Golden Eagle said...

Thanks for the tips! Great examples to go with them, too.

JEFritz said...

Very good points, especially about the stilted dialogue. It's hard to learn what, realistic though it may be, reads wrong. But once you do, you never forget it.

Nas Dean said...

Great post. Thanks for the tips!
The #1 cutting orange in half, might signify she'd like to cut him in half?!

LM Preston said...

Dialogue is always a sticky topic. Funny I was reading a novel my daughter and I enjoyed and it was littered with slang. When I read reviews from other readers, some readers complained about the slang/dialogue and said that it took away from the story. I however (and my kid) loved it, because it was a refreshing change from the norm. I read my dialogue outloud, and ask others to also, but again, you can't please everyone.

T C Mckee said...

Hey! Love the cover of your book. Finally had the chance to stop by for a visit and even that was looking a little bleak. Totally with you on the positive side of things but I've been trying to be that way for awhile. My ranting is only meant to be funny and I learned that if you're too serious in this business it will eat you alive. Wonderful post on dialogue. I usually read out loud to my dog. He seems to dig it but I'm still torn sometimes. He seems to get equally excited when I say peanut butter too, so I don't know...

kmckendry said...

Thanks for all the great tips. I like reading all my work out loud. I think it really helps to get the flow right. I'm going to recheck my dialogue right now! Count me in on your "positivity" resolution! Happy New Year!

William Kendall said...

Great tips, and great examples!


Happy New Year!

Rachel Pudelek said...

Great article. I love how you said you notice things in movies that you wouldn't have a couple years ago. I completely agree. If the story of the movie feels rushed, or characters unrealistic it bugs me the way it never has before. I think it's pretty cool. :)


http://rachelpudelek.blogspot.com/

Rachael Harrie said...

Hey PK, Happy New Year!!! Great tips, love the examples :) I've bookmarked this post for later on in my revisions!

Rach

J.C. Martin said...

I struggle with dialogue the most. Thanks for sharing this, all great advice!

Kittie Howard said...

Great post! Thanks for the tips, PK. So happy you mentioned the ly stuff after the tag. When I'm reading this drives me nuts. Hadn't realized to use 'said' regularly...learned much today!

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