Friday, January 2, 2009

Going On and On and On About Dialogue

Conversations go on all around us. We take part in them too. Hundreds a day in fact. Little pieces here. Never-ending arguments there. We discuss sports, TV shows, news, gossip, that annoying ooey, gooey, kissy baby talk the neighbors exchange every morning in the driveway. Every morning! In the driveway! Dialogue should look and sound and feel nothing like this…real conversation that is. Not just the ooey, gooey blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada crud either. But, you think, if my dialogue matches phone chatter, chatting, texting and regular speaking, it must be good and effective and believable because that’s what’s most natural. Nope. Not true. Here are things to keep in mind regarding dialogue.
Dialogue isn't even a cousin of real speech. It’s an entirely different beast. Great dialogue is what we imagine real conversation to be. Real speech contains too many pauses, drop-offs, superfluous detail, meaningless fluff. You could never write an entire YA book in the way real teens talk… "and he was like…and she was like…oh my god...can you believe it...that is so wrong..." because it would take ten pages to learn that Cody dumped Marissa at the senior dance right when she was crowned queen. Dialogue is the edited, digitally enhanced, version of genuine conversation.
This fantastical creature called dialogue is powerful but can be quite unwieldy if you don’t grasp it’s most important function. Thrust. Dialogue must propel your story forward. If yours doesn’t move the story places, it’s too weak. It should drive and enhance the plot.
Verbal conflicts can take rollercoaster trips with ups and downs and twists but they can't be on an endless loop. They must stop eventually, lead somewhere, with one character not winning the battle of wits and words. Conflict is great, so have it, lots of it, but give it a point and a direction.
All your main/significant characters should have their own way of speaking: inflections, owned phrases, tone, etc. If a reader were to skip ahead after reading the first ten chapters, they should be able to tell which of your main characters is speaking without dialogue tags. That’s how identifying your dialogue needs to be.
Dialogue should reveal characterization and personality. It’s not as strong as action, but it’s the second best way to show who your characters are.
You can and should convey unknown details to readers, here and there, but dialogue should never be used as an info dump. For instance, if you set your book in the future, don’t try to relay the blessings and curses of that society by having characters discuss things everyone in that time and place knows. There’s nothing natural about this. Show that world. Pull, readers into the middle of it. That’s it. Don’t explain one thing. Telling is author intrusion. Readers can figure out what’s what with effective showing.
Dialogue can be used to control pacing and set tone.
Only use as many dialogue tags as necessary to avoid confusion. Cut off all the extras. And mostly used said or asked.
It’s okay to lie. Dialogue can be deceptive to both the reader and other characters. A character can say one thing and be thinking and/or meaning an entirely different thing.
Try not to overuse dialect, as in words misspelled and millions of contractions. It’s okay in places to establish voice, but try to use phrasing to convey it overall. A book that’s thick with crazy spellings, especially for a main character, is difficult to get through. Why make your readers suffer?
When fashioned well, dialogue can captivate a reader. Make sure it moves the story forward, reveals character, unfurls conflict and sounds like what we perceive to be reality. Make it pertinent, focused, important. Make it rock solid and shiny, another sparkling facet of your great writing ability.
~ Signing off and sending out cyber hugs.

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