Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Dialogue, Ye Many-Headed Viper

What sells better, gets more recognition nowadays, books or movies? That's right, movies. Now, I do often prefer a good book, but the appeal of cinema is pretty simple to see. It's all action and dialogue, none of that pesky back story to get in the way of anything else. Personally, I like the back story, but this is about mass appeal, after all—I think I've made that abundantly clear through the course of this blog.

Some writers are afraid of dialogue, since it's not a tool we're often trained in, but dialogue is probably the most important tool we have at our disposal in fiction. Look at it this way—in real life, you most likely can't read people's thoughts, so you only have their dialogue to judge them on. Why should your characters be any different? Especially with such an unclear image of your characters as we have in a book, what they say is of utmost importance.

One would think that we would be good at writing dialogue. I mean, we all speak, after all, so we know how it sounds, right? Not necessarily. People fluent in a language use passive listening rather than active listening, meaning that we enact a sub-conscious mechanism to gather information when we listen to people. Combine that lack of knowledge with the human tendency to, uh, stutter and, um, like, kind of, fumble with words when, uh, we speak, and you have a nightmarish cocktail.

Again, there's always a solution. The most fun is one of my favorite things to pull out of my writer's group—write a scene first without any dialogue, just action and explanation, and then write the exact same scene with just dialogue, and try to make each one viable and believable. At that point, it's closer to writing a script, in which we draw on our osmotic knowledge of scriptwriting gained from watching plays, movies, and operas (Or am I the only opera fan here?).

You can also try your hand with some public speaking lessons. In fact, go to your library and look along with the writing section for books on public speaking. Go ahead. I'll still be here when you get back. I don't think your characters should be constantly giving speeches—trust me, that's really the last thing I want to read. The important thing in those books is the way they dissect human speech. To teach you how to speak the 'right way' in front of a crowd, they have to show you how the average person speaks in a normal situation. Admittedly, it doesn't work for a more historical speech pattern, but I'd bet that, somewhere, you can find a resource for those too.

The other thing that no one ever wants to explain to writers is the differences in character dialogue. We all hear it—your characters should sound different from one another—but no one ever bothers to give us the tools for that. Well, I'm no linguist, but there are certain things you pick up on. Think about the way the different people in your life talk. We all have little idiosyncrasies (personally, I always use 'correct' instead of 'right,' use 'any who' instead of 'anyhow,' and often end long, drawn-out stories and explanations with 'et cetera, ad nauseum, ad infinitum.') that people take notice of. Some people use choppy sentences, others use long, languid sentences. Multilingual people will sometimes slip between languages. There are colloquial sayings, foreign speech patterns, and all sorts of countless other things that make people's speech more interesting. Go ahead and use those things to mark your characters as unique—but keep them to one character. If every character uses high honorifics when addressing people, it becomes a part of the culture, not a quirk of the individual.

If all else fails, though, go to the old standby (What? You knew I'd mention it at some point, didn't you?) and read your dialogue out loud. If you're really lucky and really nice to your writer's network, you might get people to read your other characters' parts. If you can't, then it's advisable that you at least don't read it in public. I mean, talking to yourself is one thing, but holding conversations with yourself in different voices can garner you a few weird looks.

Peace for now, loves,


Kate said...

Great post. I really like your writing style and I am going to try out the writing experiment you suggest, but can I just say...what the hell is a nightmarish cocktail? They're all delicious :)

Kate said...

How funny, only yesterday I saw a video about miscommunication when learning languages, and now I have misinterpreted that sentence with the cocktails! I must try harder, I need a cocktail.

Erin M. Hartshorn said...

Nice discussion on how to use dialogue!


Iliadfan said...

I've done the "just dialogue" exercise before, but not just narrative. Doing them separately for the same scene sounds like fun. And a great way to work through a sticking point.

Great A to Z theme, btw!