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Monday, May 28, 2012

Dialogue: the life of the story

I saw the The Avengers recently, and the dialogue was so wonderful as to bring tears to my eyes. I've been watching far too much television and suffering through its clunky, wooden dialogue. CSI, I'm looking at you.

It might be a little hyperbolic, but for me nothing pulls down a story faster than bad -- or even mediocre -- dialogue. I may be overly sensitive. And I've always been frustrated by my inability to put a finger on just what it is that works or doesn't work, so this week I'm going to try to and I'd love to have your two cents, too.

Nothing in your story exists in a vacuum. All the aspects are cross-woven and anchored on each other. Dialogue derives from a number of other aspects of the story, and also is constrained by both reality and what the story needs. I'm not going to hit all the aspects, but here's what I'm trying for:

Dialogue derives from the character speaking it. You already know this: a hard-core surfer chick does not talk like an Oxford professor. An senior politician does not sound like an illegal immigrant struggling to learn English. Lawyers and short order cooks have completely different vocabularies.

Dialogue derives from culture. The ideas available to your characters, the priorities they've been told to have, their entire frame of reference -- all derive from the world-building.

How people actually speak vs. useful dialogue
There's a gap between what people mean and the words they say. You can drive a Mack truck through it, sometimes. As writers, we naturally suffer from the urge to be as clear as possible because reader confusion is deadly. Unfortunately, absolute clarity in dialogue can also be deadly because people just don't talk that way. It drains all the life from the dialogue.

And then there's the problem of getting out the information you need the reader to see.

Research vs. development
Dialogue styles can be researched, and should be in many cases. A general appreciation of etymology and the history of the English language can be very useful. However, letting your characters be involved in developing their voices is just as important.

Let's talk about talk. Let's crit some talk. Send up to 500 words of speechifying with "Dialogue" in the subject line to: unicornbellsubmissions@gmail.com before Thursday, May 31. I will post something of my own on Saturday for everyone to attack, if nothing else.


Charity Bradford said...

Great post L. Dialogue is one of the things that really do make or break the story. How many times have I rolled my eyes and thought "they would never say that!"

I'm looking forward to seeing the submissions this week as well. I love good dialogue when I could get it.

Brent Wescott said...

I watched CSI once in my life and couldn't stand all the exposition and on the nose dialogue so I never watched it again.

Em-Musing said...

What really puts my panties in a wad is watching a period movie and hearing contemporary slang. And re: CSI, at least Miami CSI (reruns), I can predict every head tilt and sideways glance of David Caruso.

mshatch said...

Now that I think about it, bad dialogue (and way too much telling rather than showing) is probably what ruined the last book I read. It was supposed to be YA but the mc talked and acted with the confidence of someone much older. It annoyed me.

Clarissa Draper said...

What an offer. I don't have anything to crit right now but I love your points.

Donna Hole said...

Love the post. I'll send you some dialogue L. Should be fun to see what you make of it. Dialects are hardest to do in a story.


L. Blankenship said...

Heh, well that's as much an indictment of Caruso's acting ability as the writing... :)

Huntress said...

"Justified" is my example of great dialogue.

I am researching Australian speech at the moment, checking out news programs etc for syntax examples.

Liz said...

Yeah, dialog can be hard. I know I don't do it well.

Alicia C. said...

Great post! Thanks! I am still working on figuring out dialogue. My mom had me take Latin for many moons as a young child. gak. It was. um. wonderful. BUT! I'll tell you what. I know quite a bit about HOW words are built, where they come from...and so forth. Not sure how that helps me. But it MUST! I find that with dialect, watching british comedies helps a great deal. Trying to hear how they talk to each other. The different exclamations! And so much getting said with just a word. It's great. I do find that for writers, Diana Gabaldon stands out for decent dialogue. most of her scenes are dialogue driven. And, for me anyway, she can make me get lost in a scene.

Aldrea Alien said...

Been looking at the dialogue I have and one thing strikes me: there's often a lot of action or internalisation going on between the actual speaky bits. But then, I know of no one who just naturally stands there and yaks. I tend to do a lot of hand waving.

When first writing anything talky bits, I tend to have a problem with wandering dialogue. I get a start and I have a finish to aim for or some point that needs slipping in, but somewhere along the way, the "chat" takes the scenic route. I've no idea how it ends up making sense in the end, but it seems to work itself out.

Donna Hole said...

@Aldrea: Been there, loads of times, lol. I tend to get chatty in dialogue and have to cut out mannerism tags and filler. I wonder if I talk that way in real life :)


Aldrea Alien said...

I know I ramble on and on in RL to people I know (my family can attest to this), but tend to be tight-lipped in less known territory. Yet much of my writing, whatever tangent it goes on, doesn't ramble quite as much as I. I’d say it’s because I control both sides, but pfft, what do I know about linear talking?

Here’s an example from piece I wrote yesterday. It’s full of stuff like this:
*small bit about noticing book is same as the one she lost before her kidnapping*
“Quite the humorous read.” He patted the leather cover as if it were some old, faithful hound. “Though I must say the kingdoms wouldn’t be quite as pleasant as they’re depicted in these pages. They’ve many myths about us and we’re often viewed as ... unwelcomed visitors.”
Hugging herself, she rubbed at an arm. “The kingdom or its Lord?”
“Both.” Lucias leant back in his seat and nodded at the curtained window. “Tell me, what do you see?”
*Bit about what she sees out window. More dialogue*

Often my non-pov dialogue is broken like this (different piece):
*action, description& whatnot*
“Come on! Come on!” a man bellowed, thrusting his torch into the wagon. “Step out or be dragged out, your choice.” He laughed. “Be the last you’ll ever get.”
*action, description& whatnot*

Though if it’s the MC’s dialogue, it’ll probably be:
*dialogue, action, internalisation, action, more dialogue/internalisation*

(As I said, I ramble. ^_^)

L. Blankenship said...

This will come up under realism vs. what the story needs -- since rambling is perfectly normal IRL, as you say, but can be a problem in a story if the characters head off on a tangent.

The challenge is getting the conversation to "naturally" ramble in the direction of the writer's choosing :)

Ink in the Book said...

Hello! I joined just this morning and I am looking forward to participating in this exciting blog! I have already enjoyed everything I've read so far!
Dialogue can be challenge and the writing must really be in character when putting their words on paper. It's a challenge I need to tackle!