Friday, May 23, 2008

Dialogue: An Exploration

The Boyhood of Raleigh,
Sir John Everett Millais,
oil on canvas, 1870,
Tate Gallery, London.

A post following Agent Bransford's Dialogue Contest asked the question: What makes good dialogue?

The cumulative answer is that good dialogue reveals character, advances plot, expresses motivation and includes micro tension.

In other words, a dialogue scene has to work just as hard as any other scene. As one poster on the thread put it, a dialogue scene has to move the plot with the same alacrity as a fight scene.

Other advice:

Dialogue should be easy to read aloud -- which I interpret to mean, first and foremost, that one should be able to hear the words spoken, whether you move your lips when you read or not.

Don't overdo the bon mots -- which can come across as authorial intrusive, even if the character has a smart mouth. A conversation should not be an exclusive demonstration of an author's cleverness at repartee.

Someone mentioned sub-text, that what is not said in a scene is also an important factor to the conversation. Be aware of subtleties.

Many people prefer surrounding and supporting narrative/action to give context to speech and character interaction. No talking heads. Especially no talking heads for pages and pages. Keep a balance with other narrative elements. Dialogue scenes become tiresome if extended beyond attention span.

Emphasized also was the need to give the illusion of realistic speech without the slow boredom created by genuine reproduction. Like, you know. And it often may be effective to cut to the chase and eliminate the usual introductory conversational gambits employed in real life. Nice weather we're having.

And, of course, the use and mis-use of dialogue tags. Vary their placement to imitate natural pauses in conversation. Tags -- or their action equivalent -- need not be attached to every speech line, but are often necessary when more than two people are present and speaking.

I would suggest that tags could be repeated a few times at the beginning of a conversation whenever a new character is introduced, to assist the reader in becoming acclimatized to the character's speech patterns.

Each character's manner of speaking, their diction, indicates their background, their education, their cultural influences, even their moral values. For many writers, this individuality, these subtle distinctions of voice, proves to be the most difficult to re-create in dialogue.

Other suggestions?


haunted author said...

You seemed to have covered the basics pretty well! I was blown away by the great dialog on the dialog contest- I found it too late to enter, but not too late to learn a lot. I thought it was quite wonderful to see all the different bits of dialog side by side.

One problem I'm constantly working through with dialog is regionalism. My stories are set in Appalachia, and I want to capture the very colorful rhythms, accents and vocabulary and make it sound real- but without dropping all the g's and making these people sound like real idiots.

I found a book the other day-dang, its before coffee so I can't come up with the title, but its pretty rare- written in the 20's or 30's and mercifully sinking into book obscurity. Anyway, its set in East Tennessee, written by a flat-lander and the dialog is impossible to get through. (The whole thing is impossible to get through) The dialog reads like some sort of tortured linguistics study.

One of my favorite descriptions of speech is Margaret Mitchell, in Gone with the Wind, talking about Scarlett's Mother's speech- "Kind with consonants, and liquid with vowels"- and right off, you know how that character talks. It's brilliant

Bernita said...

Haunted, I think the chief benefits of that sort of mega contest is reading the examples.
Yes, getting the flavour and rhythm of dialect/regionalism is tricky. Very.

writtenwyrdd said...

"Especially no talking heads for pages and pages." Oh, lordy and amen to that one! I lose the thread of who is talking when you have just dialog with the occasional tag. Add in the stage business and tags (inserted to reflect natural pauses in speech, just as you say, Bernita) but please add them in!

Good dialog reveals the information needed to undertand what is said and what is not said. Sometimes you need narrative and sometimes you need to avoid it. As ever, it's a balancing act and no single rule applies. But we know good dialog when we read it!

Bernita said...

Written, it may be an unpopular stance but I think too much dialogue, even when properly attributed, can spoil a story.
I'm left with the sensation of yap-yap-yap.

BernardL said...

I think you covered them very well. The contest entries were really good.

Bernita said...

Indeed they were, Bernard.
You have a very sure hand with dialogue, btw.

Rick said...

Writtenwyrdd - You beat me to it about long dialogue and talking heads. When I'm writing dialog I mostly put stage business and tag placement aside, to concentrate on the rhythm of the conversation. Then go back and turn it from a radio play to a movie, so to speak.

Haunted - For regional dialog, like archaic dialog, the best thing might be to not even try to imitate the most familiar/stereotyped features, and concentrate on subtler rhythms. In faking 16th c. speech, archaisms like "thou" are instant phony; what works is the rhythm of people who swagger their words as if all the world really is a stage.

A complete aside brought on by "thou" - how do you represent, in English, the moment when characters ostensibly speaking a European language shift to the familiar forms, tu/du? This must be wretched for translators, because a key shift to a more intimate relationship can be signaled by something for which English has no equivalent.

writtenwyrdd said...

rick - I think that closing of personal space is a reasonable equivalent of switching to more intimate language forms. Not always, but I think it is one means of displaying the shift from stranger to intimate. We Americans tend to like a lot of room between us and someone with whom we are not close. If you go to Japan, for instance, people crowd uncomfortably close to you.

Bernita said...

Rick, Written's given a good one - body language.
Another, though not as useful these days, is the switch to first or pet names from formal address.

Written, I've been told that some South Americans tend to get in one's face as well.

laughingwolf said...

well said, all...

i found screenwriting covers many bases since, other than action, the best comes out in dialog

with the influx of diverse peoples into canada, it's educational to watch how they talk/act

Gwen said...

If I have to stop and count back to figure out who said what, I'm not terribly happy. Not terribly upset either.

The first time I read Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades, I remember the cadences and word choices of both the narrative and the dialogue reflecting the time and place (France to England to France, with those powdered wigs and men in heels). I wasn't expecting it, so I was a little startled, but it turned out to be effective.

Rick said...

Nice observation about personal space. People from a lot of cultures get in our face, since we're probably pretty near the long end of social distance.

writtenwyrdd said...

Body language is a frequently overlooked component of communication. Many of us do not recognize when we are being power played.

A simple and frequenly overlooked example is handshake styles. There's male-to-female, female-to-female and male-to-male handshake nuances that tell one a lot about expectations and who's trying to put on over on someone else.

When someone grabs both of your hands and doesn't let go? They are trying to show you they are in control. When someone extends their hand so teh back of it is showing, forcing you to grip theirs from below? It's a power play. Usually women do this one. Then there's the who sits, who stands, etc. There's a lot more to it than guys squishing the hell out of each other's hands! (And don't get me started with men trying that on me when you're a woman in a position of authority over them. I have seen all the power variations on handshakes, believe me!)

Perhaps I should do a post on body language elements some time soon?

Bernita said...

That's true, Laughingwolf.

Gwen, that book remains my favourite Heyer.

Written, you definitely should.
I once made a cop wince via handshake. Served him right for calling me "Precious."

Rick said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick said...

Writtenwyrdd - By all means! Body language is fun in a court, where a curtsey can mean anything from "Take me, I'm yours" to "If I could use a sword you'd be dead."

Bernita - I'd have loved to see that. "Precious," indeed!

Bernita said...

"If I could use a sword you'd be dead."

Almost a "cut direct."

Rick,I don't shake hands like a lady.

Dave F. said...

Rick said:
When I'm writing dialog I mostly put stage business and tag placement aside, to concentrate on the rhythm of the conversation. Then go back and turn it from a radio play to a movie, so to speak.

It's nice to know that I'm not alone when I do this. It's faster to get the ideas onto the page and decorate them later.

Bernita said...

Certainly not alone, Dave.
Am inclined to do likewise.

raine said...

Seems like the bases were pretty well covered. And the entries were definitely lessons in themselves.

Like, you know.

Thank you, thank you, and thank you.

Served him right for calling me "Precious."

I would've paid cash money to be on the sidelines for that one...

Bernita said...

Hee, Raine!
Must confess, I've used that "habit" for a minor character.

Then I batted my eyelashes ( or "twittered them - Gads, Charles, I so want to steal that line!) and apologized - just to rub it in.

writtenwyrdd said...

I can imagine that fellow's surprise, Precious. *ducks and runs*

What's worse is some of the endearments people called me when I was pulling a traffic stop or what have you. Traffic stops stick in my mind because of how I suddenly became riveting and a flirt magnet with a ticket book in my hand! And I've surprized a couple of guys with my squeeze when they gripped too hard, too, bernita. Some yahoos seem to think that a woman can't have a strong grip, too!

spyscribbler said...

Great post! I love playing with what's not said. And I love playing with what's said between the words when the characters says something else. I love it even more when what is said between the words is in conflict with what the character is saying.

Dialogue is fun. I'm going to have to run over and read the contest entries; I missed it!

Bernita said...

I have no patience with limp female handshakes, Written, unless they are 92.
Funny how some yokels try the old honey 'n butter routine.As if they think a woman is so easily distracted by flattery. As if!

So many made me want to read the book, Natasha.

Whirlochre said...

If the words you hear through a glass pressed to the wall reach you quicker than the sense of your own shame, it's probably unmissable dialogue going on.

And yes, write it as a play first, using tags and description to clarify.

Carla said...

Especially agree with your last point. If I can tell who's talking without looking at the dialogue tag, that's a big plus for me.

Bernita said...

One should embrace one's baser impulses, Whirl. Makes for better prose.

Indeed it is, Carla, though I'll make exceptions for curt dialogue.

Suzanne Perazzini said...

Thanks for this post and for the informative comments. It has all been very helpful to have the information consolidated into one place.

Steve Malley said...

Wow, great dialogue discussion-- both the post and the comments!

Only *possible* thing I can think to add is, keep dialogue paragraphs short.

In real life, we rarely speak much over 30-50 words before the other person chimes in. Long speeches smell of forced exposition.

Bernita said...

Hope it's helpful, Suzanne.

Avoid dialogue dump.Steve, thank you. That is a very good piece of advice!

jjdebenedictis said...

No suggestions; just praise. This is a great post!

Ello said...

Dialogue is so difficult that I often spend too much time trying to work out all the nuances. I think there is an art to it. I hope to master it one day.

Separately, Bernita, I wanted to let you know that Dr. Gigi Durham, the author of the Lolita Effect, the media sexualization of young girls and what we can do about it, is guest appearing on my blog this coming WEdnesday to answer questions on this very important topic. It would be wonderful if you could help spread the word or at the very least stop by and be part of our Q&A discussions.

Hope to see you then!

SzélsőFa said...

A very useful post, Bernita. I'm about the read all the comments now.
In my WIP called Halo, I'v just finished a small dialogue.
I will re-read it again in the light of your advice.

Individual voice attached to each character and its expression by mere words is a tough one to handle.

SzélsőFa said...

Re:limp handshakes:
I've received them from men, or from people who looked like men.
Oh my, handshake is an expression of power. Or of power one wishes to have. And there's a difference in that.

Having read the comments, and useful they really were, I came to the conclusion that the dialogue in Halo must be accompanied (strengthened) by showing their movements, body languages, etc. while they are still speaking. It can make the dialogue stronger, I'm quite sure.

Bernita said...

Thank you, JJ!

Ello, will do.
~makes note~
Am by your blog every day.

Delighted if this post is useful to you, Szelsofa.

Handshakes are an interesting social construct.
I see them as the ritual remnants of a form of mutual oath-taking, as in, "I will do you no harn."

Charles Gramlich said...

Excellent advice. That "witty repartee" stuff drives me nuts when that's all it is, a chance for the author to demonstrate their wit. I see this a lot in TV, another reason I seldom watch.

writtenwyrdd said...

I don't find actual dialog difficult at all. And I think I do a decent job of it. What seems most troublesome for me is achieving the proper balance between telling the story and creating the scene--the bit about making the dialog carry the story's weight and move the plot forward.

It really is too easy to get caught up in that witty repartee thing!

Rick said...

Writtenwyrdd - balance and the hazards of witty repartee, indeed! I'm wrestling with the latter right now, and a massacre of darlings is probably at hand.

Talking heads are a risk in political fiction (meaning fiction about politicians, not message-pimping). After all, politics mostly is people talking. If they pull weapons on each other it gets more colorful, then it's politics by other means, as Clausewitz said.

Bernita said...

When the dialogue begins to resemble an extended game of ping-pong, Charles, I get tired.

My main fault,I suspect, Written, is the dialogue dump Steve mentioned.I probably ricochet between too little and too much.

Politicians do tend to have the expounder habit, Rick!