Some things you can do to help improve dialogue in stories:
Listen to people talking--this can be a good way to spend the time while you are waiting in line, or in a waiting room, or such. (Just don't let them know you are listening.)
Pay attention to dialogue in movies and on tv. Because it is made-up dialogue, it is, of course, artificial; but so is dialogue in fiction.
Notice how people talk, what they talk about, how they get ideas across to each other and how they fail to do that. Notice how tension increases when communication decreases (this is something you can really =use= in stories). Notice how sometimes people talk at cross purposes--each person isn't really listening to the other because they are too busy worrying about what they will say when they get to talk next. (This is also something you can use in stories.)
Also, when you read, notice how other writers do dialogue. When you read a passage of dialogue that works particularly well for you, sit down at the computer (or with pen and paper) and copy it out. You will notice things when you do this that you didn't notice when you were just reading it over. (If you really want to study the dialogue, try diagramming the sentences, or color-coding the parts of speech in each sentence. Try putting the sentences in your own words, or figure out ways someone else--perhaps one of your own characters--might say the same thing.)
These things can help, and as you do them, you'll probably think of other things you can do that will help as well. (If so, you are welcome to share them.)
And one thing that you should always keep in mind, most of a conversation is spoken without words.
If you only report the words said, you will miss out on so much of the transmitted meaning of any dialogue you write. People say things with their bodies, with their faces, with their hands, and there is much more that they do not say.
Sometimes, what is not said is more interesting to report than anything that might have been said about it. What a character hides is more telling than what they reveal. What they don't even know themselves is often the most telling of all.
I also have found it useful to use a tape recorder and 'speak' the conversation out aloud, as opposed to writing it. It's easy to forget the rhythms of speech when you write and create characters who speak in a strange philosospeech. This helps me make characters sound more realistic.
Posts: 25 | Registered: Apr 1999
(can you tell I'm trying to catch up? last post on this thread was nearly 4 months ago! anyway...)
About dialogue, a couple of questions.
What do you think about slang, or dialects? Ya know, when a character goes off talkin' 'bout her friends an' all dat, talkin' 'bout 'em like they was jus' da cream an' all? (it's never that bad, I just wanted to make the point.)
When I listen to people speak, quite often they don't finish their words (or say the whole word), they're in too big a hurry to say what they have to say. My characters do that to, jus' 'cause, ya know, that's how some of 'em talk. But believe me, writing and reading a bunch of dialogue with apostrophies can get quite annoying. So then what? If you use it sparsely, it can seem inconsistent.
Reading Heart in Atlantis by King I've noticed that he just doesn't use the apostrophies --friggin instead of friggin' -- what do you all think about that? Seems to work for me.
I'll hold off on my second question for now, gotta get back to work.
>What do you think about slang, or dialects? >Ya know, when a character goes off talkin' > 'bout her friends an' all dat, talkin' >'bout 'em like they was jus' da cream an' >all? (it's never that bad, I just wanted to >make the point.)
Well, I'm from the south and yes, it CAN be as bad as that!
You ask a question, JP, that comes up every so often.
Right now, I'm reading Nalo Hopkinson's MIDNIGHT ROBBER. The dialect is very strong in it, but there is very little in the way of apostrophication (is that a word?).
Other examples of dialects in fiction that you may have run across (or that you might want to take a look at) are Heinlein's THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS and Lee's DON'T BITE THE SUN and DRINKING SAPPHIRE WINE. (The slang in the two Lee books is extensive.)
When it comes to dialect, I would submit that the kindest course (kindest on your readers) is to remember that LESS IS MORE. It doesn't take much to convey a dialect, and the more you use to convey it, the more the reader may have to struggle to find the story.
I would also submit that syntax (word order and word choices) can convey dialect much more clearly and understandably to a reader than trying to spell the words in a dialect so that the reader can get an idea of their sound. Puzzling out words spelled in a dialect is often not worth the effort to readers.
Consider Yoda's speech as an example of syntactical dialect. Even if you couldn't see him, you'd know he wasn't from the same culture as Luke Skywalker, and yet, his dialect isn't that terribly different. It only takes a little bit of difference to make the point.
So, if it's vital to the story that you use a dialect or slang, go ahead and do it. Just make it as easy for the reader as you can. The more things you do to distract the reader from the story, the more likely it is that the reader will put the story down and the less likely it is that the reader will pick the story back up.
MIDNIGHT ROBBER is on the preliminary ballot for the Nebula, which is why I'm reading it. Even though there aren't a lot of spelling challenges in the dialect, it is still a bit of work getting through it. (I'm over halfway through and I'm finally to where I think the story is getting interesting, but that's partly because we're finally learning about the aliens, and I like that kind of stuff.)
I'm just saying that I think I might have arrived at this point in the story faster if I hadn't had to wade through the dialect (which, so far, does not seem particularly vital to the STORY, to me, at least).
Go look at successful books and/or books that you have enjoyed that have used dialect and/or slang. See how those authors did it. And notice if they did it less or more as the story progressed. (Once the readers get the idea, the writer doesn't always have to keep the dialect up as strongly as at the beginning.)
Study how it's done by those who do it well, and then go and do likewise.
Hi, I hope you'll don't mind a young writer hopping over and dropping in.
I had an interesting "revelation", you might call it, about dialogue.
I recently wrote a story which, of course, had its good parts and its bad parts. The worst of which was probably the dialogue; I just couldn't manage to write interesting, realistic dialogue.
But now as I write another story, I find that if I limit my use of dialogue to the sole purpose of conveying information (about plot, character, setting, etc...), then my quality of dialogue skyrockets. Not only is it more interesting (I'm actually saying something important this time!), but as a side effect, it becomes more realistic.
I think that this added realism stems from the fact that I have to make sure that whatever the character says ties in with the rest of the story. Basically, I treat most every line of dialogue like: I want to give just a little more information about this character, so what would he/she say that tells something more about him/her?
As a reader, dialogue is my favorite part of many stories. It it the organ of the story through which I best get to know the characters. When I really like one or more of the characters, I sometimes find myself tuning out action as my eyes unconsciously search for quotation marks.
I believe that any formula can work in general fiction. If you examine many of the great classics of the English language you will find they run the full spectrum of dialogue usage. I am currently reading Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" which features entire chapters of nothing but dialogue. I recently finished "The Great Gatsby" which uses dialogue sparsely.
At the same time I also believe that strong dialogue is essential to today's popular fiction, especially novels. This is a product of our television culture. I would estimate that a typical television script is >90% dialogue, and in the final product most of the story is revealed through dialogue. Movies follow a similar pattern, but often have a higher ratio of action to dialogue.
Our 21st century brains are preconditioned to extract stories from dialogue. I try to take advantage of that when I can.
One other consideration: if you manage to write The Great American Novel, and someday Steven Spielberg wants to turn it into a blockbuster motion picture, the movie will probably be much closer to the book if the book is heavy on dialogue.
[This message has been edited by Doc Brown (edited June 06, 2001).]
You mention listening to others in order to write dialogue. I can certainly see where this prevents the dialogue from sounding like narrative.
But is there not another, more common, error: making the dialogue as boring as real life.
From Bill Cosby's "Time Flies" ---------------------------- "Did I hear you say that you eat fried egg sandwiches?" my doctor asked me.
"With a pickel," I replied.
"You'd be better off eating cyanide; it has less cholesterol." ---------------------- Now, in real life this conversation was much less interesting. Bill describes his love of breakfasts, the doctor responds with the newest studies of cholesterol and throws in several medical terms.
But Cosby stubs out the beginning of the conversation with the reference to it by the doctor. His response is a witty 3 words (I believe this of Cosby). But no doctor that I've ever met has the wit of this one. "It has less cholesterol." Brilliant, interesting, and short.
Frank McCourt's wonderful use of voice(Angela's Ashes) is accomplished without quotation marks, and the reader is never confused. However, the Irish brogue is not actually written; I guess the reader assumes it.
I'd enjoy eliminating quotation marks if their is no confusion.
I am struggling with dialect as well. It can slow the reader down, and, as someone posted, the writer must be consistent.
Yeah one thing I picked up about dialogue was it is very good to read out loud. It all started when I was taking a class on King Arthur in Ligature and learned that reading Middle English is a bitch. So I had a whole semester of people looking at me weird in the study lounge talking to myself with a book. (Or if you aren't in a dorm just read in your own room to yourself like I do now.) But even if you look funny do it because it brings your understanding of the dialog to a whole new level.
[This message has been edited by Bone (edited October 29, 2001).]
TreebeardFangorn, one of the things you can learn from listening to other people talk is how boring real conversation is--full of uhs and throat clearing, not to mention all kinds of inanities.
Dialogue, by definition, must be interesting and must further the story. It is a great way to strengthen characterization as well.
Dialogue is not (also by definition) an exact or even a close copy of actual conversation for the reasons I mentioned above.
That's why I suggested, after I suggested listening to real people talk, that writers also pay close attention to dialogue in movies and on television. That dialogue has to be effective for the characters to be believable.
So listen to ordinary people talk so you can learn what they talk about and how they use words, and listen to good dialogue so you can learn how to do it.
Forgive me for sounding dumb, but I wanna be clear. TreebeardFangorn: that isn't Bill Cosby as in the Cosby show, is it? See, I'm British, and we don't know these things... JK
Posts: 503 | Registered: Sep 2000
Yes, dialogue as written language meant to imitate (I think "evoke" might be another way to put it) spoken language is a good description.
Dialogue is also a way of showing instead of telling (though you have to be careful not to have the characters do the telling too much in the dialogue, too).
Dialogue is a characterization tool as well as an action tool.
Readers like dialogue that's well done, because it brings them into the story more, and it breaks up the huge paragraphs of narrative that can sometimes be daunting (unless, of course, you have a character who talks in long-winded and huge paragraphs).
And it definitely is not the same language as conversation. (I read something just recently about that very thing--that dialogue really is a different language in a sense--I think it was in HOW TO GROW A NOVEL by Sol Stein--a book worth reading anyway.)
[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited October 29, 2001).]
Possibly then, a good metaphor would be painting and photograph. Yet the metaphor fails because, while a painting is sometimes more detailed than a photograph, dialogue must necessarily be less.
Will you pardon one more set of questions? I hope that this set of questions is not too elementary.
Is fiction dialogue significantly different from comic strip dialogue?
The speech of Dilbert certainly evokes many office conversations, yet space limits the ability to exactly replicate that conversation. Each strip is more or less successful to the extent that it successfully evokes, but does not replicate, the absurdity.
If a write wrote his dialogues as a series of comic frames and then added the narrative signals to replace the pictures, would he miss some significant part of the writing process?
TreebeardFangorn, I think starting out with a series of comic frames and converting them to regular narrative with dialogue would be an interesting exercise for a writer to try.
I also think it would be worthwhile to take a dialogue scene that you particularly liked--say, something from LORD OF THE RINGS, or ENDER'S GAME--and try converting it to a series of comic frames.
Both exercises together should give you a better idea of what might get lost in the translation in each direction.
Anything you can do to take apart and learn from material that works for you has got to be useful, in my opinion. If you can find out what the author did to make it work for you, you may be able to apply that to your own stories and become that much better a writer.
The effectiveness of the Cosby quote is all about the construction of a joke in general. It's a setup and a punchline that takes an unexpected twist. There are two parts in that joke. The first setup is in "fried egg sandwiches," strange enough breakfast fare which the audience does not expect to get any wierder. Cosby's reply however takes that unexpected twist; the surprise evokes laughter. The second setup is "better off eating cyanide," the audience wouldn't guess how eating cyanide would be better than a fried egg sandwich with a pickle. The puncline, "has less cholesterol," is funny because it's true. Of course, the pickle joke is subordinate to the cyanide joke, but it works well because it's like a double twist and of course, delivery is important, at which Cosby is impeccable. So I guess what I'm saying is exciting, entertaining dialogue has twists in it.
Posts: 19 | Registered: Jun 2001
I must say, the cyanide joke doesn't strike me funny. However, it does do the kind of humor I understand: Something that's simultaneously true and false. I don't mean to imply that all humor does this, but a lot of it does. The Cosby joke does this: Yes, cynide does have less cholesterol than a fried egg sandwich, and it is healthy to eat less cholesterol, but at the same time cyanide is none too healthy. OK, I'm belaboring the point, but the thing is that the joke gets you to momentarily believe two contradictory things, and that makes it funny (sez me).
The Simpsons uses this device constantly. Most, if not all of the characters, are stereotypes or at least extremely predictable. Sometimes they will do something that's simultaneously outlandish and perfectly in character, so that it comes across as both believable and unbelievable.
Anyone want to affirm or dispute this one? Does anyone have any other humor patterns to divulge?
[This message has been edited by PaganQuaker (edited November 14, 2001).]
This is probably getting off the topic of writing, but I like slapstick too. Man gets pie in the face. Audience knows that getting a pie in the face is not a pleasant thing, audience laughs. I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with realizing our own mortality and laughing at it. Or else it's a Jerry Springer thing, Gee, I'm sure glad my life isn't that bad.
Posts: 19 | Registered: Jun 2001
I thought the cyanide joke was hilarious. I must say, though, that something that is purely comedy rarely amuses me a lot. I laugh harder at little jokes dropped into a plot that isn't predominantly comedy. A joke inside drama, for example. Terry Pratchet, though, seems to be an exception to this rule, because Terry Pratchet is the funniest writer on the face of the planet. JK
Posts: 503 | Registered: Sep 2000
Written dialogue vs. spoken movie lines: Burgess' Clockwork Orange. I read about half of it, then put it down. I watched the movie recently and want to pick it back up again. Now that I have a basis for understanding the language I can glean more meaning from the written dialogue. Environment, char actions, and emotions in non dialogue form can make or break a spoken scene. Right droogs?
Now I know why I have nightmares after watching or reading Shakespeare…because I go to bed with voices in my head. I think the Bard did it best. He created masterpieces through the use of dialogue. Wouldn’t it be nice to see more soliloquy in literature?
Posts: 1 | Registered: Jan 2002
First, "he said/she said" is fine to use. They are invisible except in the sense that they let the reader know who is speaking (and that is crucial in dialogue).
Second, if you don't want to use "he said/she said," you can insert what are called action tags, which are sentences in the same paragraph as the words spoken and describe what the speaker is doing while speaking.
Third, as far as starting or ending dialogue, how do your characters start or end their dialogue? How do you start or end conversations in your own life?