Happily Ever Afters Are Just A Book Away

Happily Ever Afters Are Just A Book Away

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cast of Characters: Part Four, Dialogue

In the character series so far, we've talked about casting characters, giving them names, and developing them using a worksheet and interviews.

Today, I want to talk about talking.

Don't write terrible dialogue. Because it's terrible. Yet hilarious.

Characters are people, or sometimes animals or aliens or some other creature, but the point is they're living beings who communicate with each other. Way back at the beginning of this discussion I pointed out that a story without characters is pretty boring. Likewise, a story with characters who don't interact and talk to each other is equally boring, making dialogue an integral component of storytelling.

What is dialogue supposed to accomplish? 

1. Characterization and voice.
2. Reveal characters' relationships.
3. Move story forward.
4. Increase tension.
Tyrion:  Getting all four purposes in one line of dialogue.

What does dialogue look like?

The mechanics of dialogue are pretty simple: 1) Indent every time a new character speaks; 2) put spoken words in quotation marks; 3) punctuation goes inside the quotation marks (comma if you're using a dialogue tag, period if you're not). So it looks like this:

          "Come in, " Jessica called.

          The door opened and Ginger walked in. She looked at Jessica, looked at Wyatt, then back to Jessica, before biting her lips to stifle a laugh. She failed miserably. "Did I interrupt something?" she asked.

          "No," Jessica said, trying for aloof. "What can I do for you, Ginger?"

          "Seriously? You're going to be that way?"

          "What way is that?"

          "Pretend professional, when your bra is crooked, your hair's a mess, you're flushed, and your lips are swollen. And Dr. Sexy Pants is all smug over there." 

How to do it well:

There's a lot of crappy dialogue out there, but if you consider these tips, yours won't be.

1. Showing not telling.

I know, you hear this a lot. It's like white noise in the background, you hear it so much. But in this case I mean don't just say, "and then they went to lunch."  Write the scene. Use dialogue as an opportunity to show who the characters are and how going to lunch  moves their story forward.

2. Ground the dialogue in a scene.

In order to avoid the ping-pong of back and forth talking heads, break it up with actions and reactions from the characters.

3. Make sure all the dialogue is necessary.

Small talk is tedious and boring, so get in late and leave early. You don't need all the 'hi' and 'bye' chitchat.

4. Don't monologue.

People speak in short bursts, not long sweeping speeches so keep dialogue short and crisp. It'll keep readers from skimming.

5. Make it real, not realistic.

It should give the impression of real speech without the choppiness and hesitation. Use realistic-sounding clear sentences, but remember, people speak in contractions so try to avoid stiff-sounding standard English.

6. Use silences and avoidance to convey meaning.

 If a character doesn't respond to another's question, or changes the subject, that can convey tension or relationship issues. If one character says "I love you," and the other doesn't respond, you know there's something up.

7. Avoid exposition as dialogue.

Characters don't talk about stuff they both already know, so avoid dialogue like this:

“Hey, remember Grandpa lived on a farm in Oklahoma where he raised chickens until a tornado wiped out the whole place and then he went to live with Uncle Billie-Bob in Texas?”

8. Differentiating characters

Be sure your characters' personalities are expressed in their dialogue. Are they funny? shy? tactless? That should come across. Try taking out all the tags and reading the dialogue out loud. Can you tell which character is which?

9. Slang/accents 

Less is more here, folks. It's tempting if you're writing a Scottish hero to go overboard on the wee bairns, ye ken? Same for ethnic slang or dialect. If you overdo it, it can come across as unintentionally comical, offensive, or just plain difficult to read.

Any excuse for a pic of Jamie Fraser...

10. People don't say each others' names in every line of dialogue. 

People just don't talk like this:

   "Hi Bob, how are you."
   "I'm fine, Sarah, how are you?"
   "Well, Bob, I'm fine, thanks for asking. What are you eating for lunch, Bob?"
   "I'm glad you asked, Sarah. I'm having a PBJ on rye. What are you eating, Sarah?"

11. Be sparing with exclamation marks. Too many makes it sound like a bunch of 13-year-old girls talking to each other. OMG! 

Places to Study Dialogue

I just threw a bunch of tips at you, but where can you see them in action? Study them? 

 - Read a play! It's all dialogue. See how dialogue and character interaction makes the story come alive.

- Watch a movie! It's better if you can do it with the screenplay in hand, but if you can't watch how characters talk to each other and make the story come alive through speech.
One of my fave movies.
- Read other books in the genre you write! Don't just read them, study them (but don't copy them).

- Read your dialogue scenes out loud! How do they sound?

- Eavesdrop on conversations!  This is a good way to see how not to write dialogue, because people speak in such a choppy, non-linear. It's amazing they ever understand each other

Finally: Dialogue TAGS

I'm saving this for a post unto itself because there's just so much to say, so stay tuned...

Did I miss any important dialogue tips? If so, feel free to share!


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