Friday, May 25, 2007

Ask the Authors: Friday

What do you believe makes fiction dialogue "snappy" versus "boring?"

"Boring" reflects real life dialogue. "Snappy" only appears to. And my rule of thumb is that every single word uttered means something to the story, whether it's for character development, plot advancement, setting, whatever. Not one word is wasted. -- Rene Gutteridge

More and more I’m doing away with speaker attributions almost entirely. There will always be places where “he said” or “she whispered” is needed for clarity or for rhythm, but as a reader, such attributions slow me down, and they are so rarely truly needed. Especially if a strong action beat will serve the purpose just as well. Another thing I’m learning to do with dialogue is ask myself what I expect my character to say, and then work hard to have him say something unexpected. –Deborah Raney

A couple of things. Brevity, for one. A lot of writers seem to have trouble with the notion that we don’t speak in complete sentences. They write, “I wish you would get out!” when “Get out!” is so much more true to the thing. So the first thing you should do is hunt for words and phrases that don’t have to be there to get the point across, forgetting about sentence structure and thinking only in terms of the absolute minimum required to communicate the meaning and/or emotion. Attributions are another thing. Don’t write “He said, ‘Get out!’” when just “Get out!” will do. If you think the reader might not know who’s talking, show that person to them like a camera would, then toss in the dialogue. For example: “John clenched his fists. ‘Get out!’” That way you keep the emotions flowing right along with the dialogue. Another thing on attributions, you must NOT get all flowery with them. For example, “‘Get out!’ he choked.” You see that kind of thing a lot with beginners, and it’s just silly. People don’t choke and talk simultaneously. They also don’t grin their words, or spit them, or grimace them, etcetera, and it feels artificial to read that kind of thing. Another thing: snappy dialogue trusts the reader. It makes the point and moves on. Boring dialogue circles all around the point before settling down to it, and then adds a little repetition for effect. Snappy characters say what’s on their mind and then move on. – Athol Dickson

When dialogue rings true, when it reflects real life and the personality of the characters speaking, when it's strategic (not about things that aren't vital to the story or character development) and balanced with effective beats, when it's written with as much style and craft as the other elements in the book, there's no way it can be boring. Karen B.

A word from Prof. Al: “Dialogue” comes from the compound Greek word dialogos which means “words between,” that is, words spoken between two or more people. (Hey, you could be on Jeopardy someday and need this info.) The key here is that words are spoken between characters and that exchange should reflect the nature of the players. A child doesn’t speak like a college professor; a college professor doesn’t usually sound like longshoremen; longshoremen are seldom confused with a southern lady living in Georgia during the 1800s. Snappy dialogue is fine in some cases, but genuine dialogue is always preferred. One exception: accent and affected speech patterns can become distracting. If your character is from the Bronx, give a hint of the accent, but don’t overdo it. If your reader has to translate the dialogue, then you will lose him or her pretty quick. Communicating to the reader trumps everything. Al Gansky.

When I teach dialogue, I try to get people to realize that it is an extension of ACTION. It's not people making talk. A character's words are tools he uses to get his way in a scene. This will eliminate a lot of flabby talk. – James Scott Bell

The absence of the "take for granted dialogue."
"Hi, Jim."
"Well, Lisa, hello. How was the drive to California?"
"Long, but well, you know."
"I sure do. Want to go write at my personal table at Starbuck's."
"Why yes, that would be delightful, thanks."
The best method for getting rid of unnecessary, boring dialogue is not starting your scene too soon. Start it after all the pleasantries are exchanged. lisa samson

The extent to which the author knows their character's background and lives, their motivations and desires and the flaws that get them into trouble will determine how snappy or boring the dialogue is. How much the author understands that dialogue is approximated human speech and not actual speech also makes a difference. Word choice (related to the specific character) and then an author's refusing to use dialogue as a "talking head" experience for the reader where the characters "tell" the reader things that would be best summarized. While revising, whenever I notice I have dialogue with more than three sentences being spoken by a character I ask if I can reduce what they're saying to one sentence and also make a decision about whether I'm trying to "tell" something, rather than having dialogue be what it's meant to be, which is action, moving the story along, demonstrating conflict or comic relief, and expanding the character's personality. That's my idea of what builds a snappy dialogue. Jane Kirkpatrick

Dialogue is snappy when it mimics the way people really talk. That way, when we read it, it’s as though we’re overhearing an actual conversation. Boring dialogue is stilted dialogue--too formal, too neat, too “cleaned up” and not a bit like the stuff your ear picks up whenever you hear people talking. Ann Tatlock

The sound. Even if it’s in incomplete sentences. Remember the movie The Big Lebowski? Every line in that film was scripted, even though it sounded at times like false starts and stammers. Do too much of that in a novel, and you’ve got static instead of dialogue. Do just enough and it sings. And you know when you’ve got it just right when you listen to it (preferably with a voice other than your own reading it) and it sounds right. – Tom Morrisey

Many factors, of course, but one is unpredictability. Don’t let your characters play ping pong with their words; every snip doesn’t deserve a snap. Throw something unexpected—even silence—into the mix every now and then. --Angela Hunt

Leave out the "stuff" we actually use in everyday dialogue. The "hi, how are you?" and the "well, I was just thinking," and most of the "ifs, ands, and buts." Don't use dialogue to update another character. Example: "Oh, right. That was the year George had the breakdown after Marcia left him for that golf pro, and you ended up in the hospital after stepping on the dog's tennis ball. You remember." Know your characters so well you don't have to pepper your dialogue with running streams of attributions ("Sissy said," "Terry asked," etc.). If you're confident of your characters, you ought to be able to write an entire page or more of dialogue without any attributions, or at least use them sparingly. Each character's voice should be so strong he's immediately identifiable by what he says and the way he says it. Say what you need and nothing more, and say it with as few words as possible. -BJ Hoff


At 8:08 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Thanks to each of you for sharing, not just in this posting but all week. I'm finding that the "tip d'jour" in writing is paring down attributions.

"Consider it done," he said.

At 7:31 PM, Blogger Christina Tarabochia said...

Deb, I really like your tip of NOT writing what you expect the character to say! I'll have to give it a try. But you expected me to say that, didn't you?

At 10:14 PM, Blogger Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Can anyone tell me--

Is it possible to have too much dialogue?

At 12:10 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Yes, Amy. Dialogue that does not further the story or characterization in some way shouldn't be there.

Compress dialogue. Cutting away at it when you edit always helps.


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