Six: to Speak to Drawl no more...A Lesson by Meredith Greene
Writing dialog for dummies, and everyone else.
Dialog must be good. As simple a thing as that phrase is to utter, or write, one cannot dismiss the important of keeping your characters’ various speeches interesting.
Readers can tell when a writer has simply thrown in some ‘lame’ lines of dialog into order to hurry things along. Shakespeare, for all this flowery, period language was still way ahead of his time in showing the audience how one can indeed serve the story up with little more than simple conversation, and still not say ‘too much’ and thus give the plot away. The writer John Grisham is also very talented in this arena, leading the reader on with spoken tidbits accompanied by pointed looks. Human book characters should talk the way real people do: some carefully mask their words, some get a bit carried away with verbosity and some mistakenly stay silent when they should speak.
One of the more marginal perks of being a book reviewer is that folks on various websites have —from time to time--forwarded me their 'novels' to be reviewed; most often it is a young writer in need of an Other Eye (see Lesson Nine). The thing I most often send back in comment is regarding an over-use of slang terms and phrases in the dialog. As I have mentioned before slang in the dialog is not as bad, per say; it adds flavor. When you are writing a historical piece, dialect helps date your prose appropriately; my husband and I are currently working on a 1900's fiction series on immigrant stories in America, so rightfully the various conversations are tinted with heavy accents and peppered with foreign phrases appropriate to the culture and background of the character in question. However, slang terms or other cultural colloquialisms become a problem as time elapses. As I pointed out earlier, in 20 years most folks may not remember the meanings of text abbreviations, therefore using text-speak in dialog--instead of spelling it out--may harm the ability of future readers, older readers or English-is-my-second-language readers to understand what you mean to say… which is the point of a written language in the first place.
Here are some more things to bear in mind when embarking on writing a bit o’ speech betwixt characters:
1. Avoid long explanations at all costs. This goes along with the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ lesson of yore.
2. Ask yourself: does this conversation further the story? Inane conversations consisting of phrases such as “Ya, like, you know… he’s so hawt!” are just plain silly and actually devalue your book. However, in some cases--as in writing a high-school drama fiction for the eyes of only one demographic--such phrases as the above might be present. Do bear in mind that you are in fact severely limiting your audience if writing to just one age group, and it is possible to write a teen-age story in prose that spans several generations.
3. After writing the dialog, read it aloud; this exercise helps you determine if it is something a human being would actually say. Once you’ve established that the bit of speech is good, then consider in light of your character. Does the dialog match the personality of the 'person' speaking it?
4. Try to use ‘real’ conversation to model yours after. Real answers, to real questions that you have heard tinge the prose with figuratively tangible substance.
5. Remember that humans generally don’t say things in the same dead-pan manner, or using the same words over and over again. Use a wide, varied vocabulary and many type of sentence structure. IF using a thesaurus, however, bear in mind this warning: taking random large words out of the thesaurus and inserting them in otherwise juvenile prose makes no sense and draws attention away from your story. Another thesaurus warning: always, ALWAYS pair its use with a dictionary. Synonyms may not suffice in all situations, therefore establishing the correct meaning and context of a word before using it in your story is vital. A Robert Louis Stevenson quote applies here: “The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean.”
6. Research your dialect – if writing a historical piece then research the speech cadence and phrases used meticulously. Era songs and poetry are often useful in this arena, as well as the obvious suggestion to read literature penned in the age you're writing about.
7. 'Tag' variety: he said, she said, they said... said, said, said. While 'said' is the staple upon which the dialog feasts, change it up a little here and there: she replied, he returned, the man inquired, she answered, he told them, she demanded, the boy wondered aloud, etc.
8. Attack of the adverbs! Going along with the above 'tag' advice, occasionally adding in a adverb is OK.
"Just don't overdo it," she said, firmly.
Added on August 18, 2011
Last Updated on August 24, 2011
AboutAuthor, columnist, freelance writer, book reviewer & poet. I review non-fiction books for The San Francisco Book Review & The Sacramento Book Review publications. Read my free course Top Ten Ti..