Thursday, August 29, 2013

Step 6: Dialogue

Thumbnail image for dialogue.jpgThoughts for the Day: "The character of a man is known from his conversations." ~Menander, Greek dramatist (342 BC - 292 BC)

"Each person's life is lived as a series of conversations." ~Deborah Tannen, author and professor of linguistics

What is the purpose of dialogue? Dialogue in fiction (and sometimes in non-fiction) brings characters to life. Good dialogue will also move the plot along. Consider this passage from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, on Harry's first day in Professor Snape's class.

HP.jpgSnape, like Flitwich, started the class by taking the roll call, and like Flitwich, he paused at Harry's name.

"Ah yes," he said softly, "Harry Potter. Our new--celebrity."

Can't you just hear the venom?! Immediately you know that there will be trouble between these two. Here's more:

"Potter!" said Snape suddenly. "What would I get if I added powdered root of asphodel to an infusion of wormwood?

Powdered root of what to an infusion of what? Harry glanced at Ron, who looked as stumped as he was; Hermione's hand had shot into the air.

"I don't know, sir," said Harry.

Snape's lips curled into a sneer. "Tut, tut--clearly fame isn't everything." He ignored Hermione's hand. 

68 words and four characters revealed!

dialogue3.jpgWhat is the best way to use dialogue? SPARINGLY. Notice that some of Harry's dialogue is internal, indicated by italics. And Snape doesn't make a long speech about how much he has heard about Harry Potter and how much he resents him, and the whole long back story between Snape and Harry's parents which is still to be revealed. But the FEEL of all of this is in the few words that he speaks out loud, as dialogue. Most of us think about a bazillion things a day; we speak just a small fraction of those thoughts. Would-be writers of realistic dialogue should keep this in mind.

Consider the Rule of Twelve from the Be a Better Writer Website by Pearl Luke. Luke says:

Grab your favorite novel and find a passage of dialogue. Any passage. The first one you see is fine. Now count the words between punctuation marks. You'll seldom find more than twelve.
We speak in short bursts of words, and your characters should do the same. If you find longer phrases and clauses in your dialogue, shorten them. Use twelve as a maximum, and aim for exchanges of half that many words to keep dialogue terse and crisp.

Writing Advice (read before trying the Writing Prompt):
10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Dialogue
Dialogue Writing Tips
Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue
Top 8 Tips for Writing Dialogue
Writing Dialogue with Tension

Dialogue2.jpgWriting Prompt #6: If you already have a piece underway, look through it for dialogue. First, notice if there is ENOUGH dialogue. An entire story can be told in dialogue alone, but a story cannot be told effectively without dialogue. At least one of your characters should speak on almost every page, ideally to one or more of your other characters. Dialogue is a way of showing, not telling, and we recall how essential that is, right?

Next, count how many words your characters speak out loud at a time. Is it more than twelve? Then it will probably sound unnatural and unconvincing.

Third, does each character have a distinctive voice? Some people use big words and some don't, and some are funny and some are not, and almost all of us have some kind of verbal tic that we may or may not be aware of. I have a friend who says "what's her bucket" when she cannot recall a person's name, and another who says "anyhoo" when the conversation seems to flag, and another who starts quite a few sentences with "the fact of the matter is," all of which serve to reveal character and personality. Give your fictional characters distinctive voices.

Fourth, if the dialogue you've written so far is not quite perfect, consider the advice here and revise it!
If you do not have a piece in progress, choose one of the following for an exercise in dialogue writing. In each option, you should start with a line of dialogue and build the scene from there. For all of these options, it might help to do some brief character sketches first to learn who your characters are before you try to make them speak.

1. Your character's best friend catches him or her in a lie.
2. Your character meets someone new that he or she dislikes immediately.
3. Your character goes to a job interview for a job he or she doesn't really want.
4. Or write a scene in which a seemingly harmless conversation takes a dramatic turn. Maybe one member of a couple decides he or she wants to break up, or decides to change something significant like a religious belief, or whatever else strikes you as dramatic.

welty 2.jpgInspirational Words:
"To imagine yourself inside another what a story writer does in every piece of work; it is his first step, and his last too, I suppose." ~Eudora Welty

Resources and Links:
Collaborating To Write Dialogue
Punctuating Dialogue

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