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Let's have a dialogue about, well, dialogue

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by BWFoster78, Jul 24, 2012.

  1. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    The topic of good dialogue has come up a lot lately, both on this forum and with my writing group. I like putting together lists to help me clarify my thoughts and to spark discussion.

    BWFoster78’s Tips for Dialogue

    1. Pay attention to all rules of writing in dialogue except where you need to deviate to demonstrate voice - One of my pet peeves (I have many) is people saying: “It’s dialogue. Grammar, etc. doesn’t matter.” I couldn’t disagree more. If writing, whether poor structure or overuse of words, distracts in the text, it distracts in the dialogue. The balance comes in trying to create a specific voice for a character. Sometimes the additional authenticity outweighs the distraction. You have to make that determination.

    2. You are not trying to capture an actual conversation — Alfred Hitchcock (I think I’m attributing the quote correctly) said, “A story is life with the boring parts removed. BWFoster78 said, “Dialogue is a conversation with the boring parts removed (I came up with that all by myself. Clever huh?).” Never show the exchange of greetings. Don’t start speeches with “okay” or other throw-away phrases.

    3. Dialogue can be a battle — The best dialogue captures tension. One person speaks. The other person doesn’t even necessarily answer anything to do with the first person, instead going on the attack. A conversation like this can show as much action as a physical fight.

    4. Keep it simple, stupid — Whenever I cringe at a piece of dialogue, it’s usually because the author, though they keep their prose tight, tend to go on and on with the dialogue. Don’t be redundant. Cut deep. The problem with this approach is that it can lead to the speech sounding stilted.

    5. Make the dialogue personal — Expose the character through the pattern of the dialogue, the word choice, the style, etc. Include feelings. This tip tends to be in direct opposition to Tip 4. Use your judgment to balance the two.

    6. Eliminate speech tags when you can — The only purpose of a speech tag is to identify the person speaking. If you can do that with an action, all the better. Note that you have to change paragraphs in this situation when another character acts. Make sure, however, that the reader always knows who is talking.

    7. Don’t overly use names inside the quotes — You can get by with it occasionally, and, when you do, it adds emotion. Overuse dulls the impact and distracts.

    8. Keep it snappy — Characters speak in fragments. They cut each other off. They use contractions.

    9. Don’t try to insert too much exposition — “As you know, Bob, dialogue needs to move the story along and can be used to impart necessary information to the reader. Too much exposition, especially poorly done, can be cringe-worthy though.”

    10. Don’t overuse exclamations — It’s fine to use them sometimes! Just don’t do it all the time! It gets really annoying! See what I mean!
     
  2. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

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    I disagree with No 1. Sorry, but people don't speak according to the rules, so your characters shouldn't either. In dialogue rules = flat. It still needs to sound and feel authentic regardless of how you approach it.

    I'd add...

    11. Avoid at all circumstances fake dialogue - the exposition already mentioned, and the characters telling each other things they already know for the sake of the reader.

    12. Dialogue is always action, so don't break its flow with too many beats, and long descriptions.

    13. Dialogue should always move the plot forward, avoid meaningless background.

    Edit-

    14. My pet peeve, Never ever use dialect to add accents. I neva cannae wurk oot woot e's sayin.
     
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2012
  3. Ireth

    Ireth Myth Weaver

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    I advise you not to read Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's "The Lady in the Loch", then (despite that it is an AMAZING book and I highly recommend it for other reasons, like the plot and characters). Every character in that books speaks with a Scottish accent that's fully written out in the dialogue. Every. Single. One.
     
  4. Ankari

    Ankari Hero Breaker Moderator

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    I used to not agree with this, but then BWFoster78 pointed out how much he hated it when reading one of my scenes. After reflecting on it, I feel that both Butterfly and BWFoster78 is right. In one of Steven Erikson's book he introduces a character that I couldn't understand because he wrote out his accent. I hated it. Although I didn't write with such extreme butchery, I can understand how others may find my minor inflections annoying.
     
  5. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    These are mostly good, I think. A few I don't agree with.

    1. I agree with Butterfly on this. There is no reason to feel confined to following all of the rules of grammar dialogue. As noted later in the tips, people speak in fragments. If done well, you can make dialogue seem more natural if you're not following all of the rules of grammar. If you have a very proper character who follows them in speech, then of course that is different.

    2. I agree as a general statement, but the tip is messed up by the example, in my view. Something like "never show the exchange of greetings" is just silly, and I can't imagine why anyone would heed that advice. The general statement that you are not trying to capture, verbatim, an actual conversation, whether in terms of what you present or how closely you try to mimic speech, is good.

    3. Makes sense to me. Dialogue doesn't have to be a battle, but it certainly can be, and that can serve the story well.

    4. I don't agree with this one. Not every character is going to have the same speech patterns of speak in the simplest way possible. You don't want generic speech where everyone sounds the same. Some characters may ramble, some may embellish. That's fine.

    5. Sound advice, in my view.

    6. I agree with this as well. I try to keep tags to a minimum, and use "said" almost all the time if I employ one.

    7. Good advice in general.

    8. Good advice, with the caveat that the speech reflects the character. Not all characters have to speak this way.

    9. Depends on how it is handled. Having characters run through information that everyone in the scene already knows, so that it is clear the author is creating an unnatural conversation to give an info dump...that's a problem.

    10. I rarely use them. I use them more often in children's stories than those for adults.

    11. Yes.

    12. Generally true, I think, but it is up to the author to make decisions of pace and style. If the effect the author wants to achieve is achieved by breaking the dialogue up, adding description, and slowing things down, then fine.

    13. Also generally true, but I'll add that it can also be used for characterization. It doesn't have to move the plot forward directly (at least not in a novel; in a short story it probably should).

    14. I agree with Ireth, though I'll say you have to be very careful about it. Scarborough is an excellent writer. Other books, like Trainspotting, actually rely on the use of dialect in dialogue (in other words, it would be a much poorer work without it). But for most authors, the chances of really bungling this and ending up with a mess are greater than the chances of pulling it off successfully.
     
  6. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I'm confused. You shouldn't use rules because people don't speak according to rules. However, don't use dialect because it annoys you. Don't people speak with dialect? By the reasoning of your first statement, you should write how people speak.

    To me, both points are the same. If something is annoying, it's just as annoying in dialogue as it is in the text. As I stated, you have to balance this with giving the character voice, but it's a decision you need to make consciously.
     
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2012
  7. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Steerpike,

    You and I have fundamental disagreements about writing. At this point, I don't think there's much point in trying to convince each other.

    Regarding 2, though, have you ever read the following:

    "Hi, Alice. What's up?"
    "Not much, Phillip. Anything new with you?"
    "Nah."

    It's terrible. It's dreckitude. It's appalling. I can't come up with a word to describe how absolutely terrible it is. In most cases: They exchanged greetings. is far superior.

    Regarding 4: the main problem seems to be when writers try to throw in a lot of phrasing to add character, but it's all redundant. They use five ways to say the same thing. They just keep repeating stuff - you get the picture. It's annoying and it detracts more than establishing character benefits.
     
  8. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    That's OK, we don't have to agree or convince one another. The forums are good for the exchange of ideas.

    The example you give of dialogue is really bad, sure. But anyone can make an example of a bad way of doing something. That doesn't mean never do it. The fact that you can write a bad exchange of greetings doesn't mean not to exchange greetings any more than the fact that Douglas Niles could write a bad fantasy novel means no one else should write fantasy.

    Regarding number 4, yes I agree that would be problematic. Even if the character is the sort who might ramble and repeat himself, it doesn't take very much of it to establish that fact with the reader, after the which the reader should be spared. I think you're right about that.
     
  9. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Did you catch my brand new signature?
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    No, I don't read signatures very often. Having read it, I guess my question is why not just say what you mean in the body of the post, instead of saying something other than what you mean and relying on a caveat in the signature line? It takes scarcely more effort to type "in general" than "never." It is certainly more clear and more efficient, which should fall right in line with your philosophy on good writing :)
     
  11. Lorna

    Lorna Inkling

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    I agree with this one. Unless you're developing character, moving on the plot or creating tension between characters don't let them yap on. I've cut so many conversations in halves and quarters again.
     
  12. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    I don't know. It's more fun to be hyperbolic?

    Actually, my philosophy with most of these kind of posts is that I'm trying to reach the people who are just starting out writing.

    Frankly, if you know what you're doing, you have your own ideas about dialogue. You can certainly find some good tips or get reminded about something you forgot, but, in general, your techniques are set.

    For the beginner, I'd rather spell out: do this/never do that. Once they learn the rule, they can experiment with breaking it.

    I understand that some people disagree with my philosophy in this regard, but I feel it helps the new writer more than it stifles their creativity, or some such.
     
  13. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    It's amazing what a difference taking the knife to a run-on conversation makes. To those who disagree, I'd seriously recommend that they try it. Read your dialogue out loud. Then cut deep, get rid of everything you can. Read it again out loud. If the first works better for you, keep it, but I think it's worth the effort.
     
  14. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I hear you, and I don't think that's necessarily wrong. My only concern in using absolutes is that I might negatively impact a writer who is going to develop along a unique path. That probably isn't likely, and in many cases I suspect whether you say 'never' or not isn't going to matter.

    It is also an artifact my my own work-related reading and writing. I write all day long and have to be careful about my word choice; likewise, when I read at work I have to assume every word is there for a reason. As a result, no matter what I read I assume the author has chosen a specific word intentionally, and means precisely that. So if I see the word "never," my instinctual reaction is to assume that the author used that word because he intended it literally. Of course, not everyone else writes that way.

    In any event, the philosophical aspects of fiction writing are interesting to me. I admit that a lot of what I see in writing books and the like seem to me to be geared toward producing rather generic, non-distinctive fiction, and I find the authorial "voice" of a lot of what is on the shelf to be so flat and interchangeable with the next book that one wonders whether it even matters who the author is. People differ on whether that is good or bad, but I tend toward the latter. It isn't a necessary consequence of overly rules-based writing, but I think it is a possible consequence.
     
  15. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    Steerpike,

    I hear you. I did choose "never" deliberately as I think it's better for my intended audience.

    I take a different tack, obviously, on authorial voice.

    To me, the important part is developing characters and story. The writing should allow you to tell the story without getting in the way. Admittedly, I do sometime fall in love with a particular bit of "purple prose" and keep it in, but, for the most part, I want the story to be the thing, not the writing.
     
  16. JonSnow

    JonSnow Troubadour

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    My question is about #14. My books starts in a town with a lot of country/farming folk, who don't enunciate their words well. For instance, "walking" would be said as "walkin'" .... "walking and talking" would be pronounced "walkin' 'n talkin'". It is not necessarily a dialect, but a way of speech from less educated characters. Where do you draw the line on this? How much should the author stay true to the sound of their speech, at the expense of making these characters sound more well-spoken than they actually are.
     
  17. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    One thing you can do is note, outside of dialogue, that they are speaking in a country dialogue or what have you. That can be enough to establish it in the reader's ear. If you want to actually write the dialogue so that it reflects the country-style speech patterns, my view is that a little bit goes a long way.
     
  18. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I think that is probably more in line with modern fiction, and I like plenty of books written that way. I like stylistic novels like Lolita and the Gormenghast books as well, and my hope is we won't lose those. I have noticed a few more novels the past few years where the style calls attention to itself, but I don't know if that is new trend or just a couple of books I happened across. It seems to me that in the era of self-publishing electronically, we'll have room for all sorts of writing.
     
  19. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

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    +1 to this.

    Hey, look at that, Steerpike and I actually agreed. :)
     
    Steerpike likes this.
  20. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Does this mean the world really does end in 2012!?
     
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