February 15, 2011

Dialogue Talk

This post first appeared as the February "Write & Rewrite" column in WritersTalk, the newsletter of the South Bay Writers branch of the California Writers Club.


In my last column, I offered some ideas for effective dialogue tags and action beats: Use the plain, unobtrusive "said" instead of more distracting verbs and adverbs, and select actions that reveal what's happening in the scene emotionally and physically. Now we're ready to move on to what the characters actually say.

This dialogue has some issues:

Allegra crossed the nursing home lounge to the corner where Chester sat alone. "Hey there, Chester."

The old man's slack features snapped into a broad smile. "Oh, hello, Allegra. It is good to see you. I am so glad you visit every Monday after school for your community service project."

"Me too, Chester. So, like, how are you, like, feeling today?"

"Well, I am doing pretty, you know, well, considering. It is nice that the weather has, uh, that the sun came out today."

"I agree." Allegra sank into a chair beside Chester. "Hey, Chester, did you know that, you know, Monday is my favorite day of the week?"

"Oh, that can't be true, Allegra. You must have way more fun on the weekends, going out and partying and stuff."

"No, I do not, because I never get invited to any parties. Nobody at school ever invites me to do anything!"

"Oh, was there something you were hoping to be invited to, Allegra? Is that why you seem upset today?"

"Yeah, that is what I am upset about. Everyone my age is a jerk." Allegra shyly placed her hand on Chester's. "That is why I would rather spend time with you, Chester."

The main principle to keep in mind when writing dialogue is that good fictional conversation resembles real speech without perfectly imitating it. When real people talk, they pause, they use meaningless filler words such as "well" and "like," and they change direction mid-sentence. They do these things constantly, and as listeners, we tend not to notice, but if you read a transcript of a normal conversation, the irregularities jump out. Fictional characters (or real people appearing in memoir or other narrative nonfiction) get to speak more eloquently to avoid pages littered with distracting "um"s and "uh"s. Use disfluencies sparingly, at times when you want to emphasize a character's hesitation or discomfort.

A substantial portion of normal conversation is generic, insignificant, and boring. In the real world, Allegra and Chester might discuss the weather for five minutes, but no reader is going to complain the characters are unbelievable if this topic is omitted from the story. Compress the greetings, introductions, and small talk to "They exchanged pleasantries" or simply skip to the part that matters.

Let your characters get to the point and express themselves clearly, but make sure they don't sound as though they're delivering prepared notes. Long, uninterrupted paragraphs in dialogue come across as phony to readers, as do detailed explanations of hard-to-describe subjects such as emotion. The balance between "too realistic" and "not realistic enough" can be hard to find.

One way to give your dialogue that real-ish feel is to read the characters' lines out loud and make changes when the words sound unnatural. Read aloud the sample dialogue, and the lack of contractions is glaring. Merely changing "I am" to "I'm," "It is" to "It's," and so on will make Allegra and Chester sound less like robots. And do they really need to refer to each other by name every time they speak?

Chester's declaration of gladness over Allegra's regular appearance may have seemed to the writer like a clever way to explain the scenario, but Chester isn't addressing the reader. He's delivering the exposition to Allegra, and it sounds fake. Dialogue is not the place to convey information that all the speakers know.

Another unconvincing part of the example is Chester's line about "partying and stuff." The words he uses make him sound like someone Allegra's age. Think about how a character's background, as well as the image he tries to present to the world, affects the way he expresses himself. Give characters distinct voices, but avoid turning them into caricatures.

Despite the writer's mixed attempts to make the speech sound life-like, the sample dialogue feels stiff because the conversation progresses so rigidly. Each statement and question is responded to exactly on topic. Real exchanges aren't as orderly. When Person A asks a question, Person B may not answer, or she might answer a different question, either as a deliberate evasion or because she has differing expectations. Real people miscommunicate and talk at cross-purposes. Adding some conversational disorder to dialogue gives it a natural sound and builds tension.

Another feature of real speech that works well on the page is the use of sentence fragments. People often don't speak in complete, grammatical sentences, and characters sound stilted if they always do. Instead of "That can't be true," how about "Can't be"? Dropping some words -- in accordance with normal speech patterns, of course -- makes dialogue more realistic and also snappier.

Finally, remember that not all of conversation is words. Well-chosen action beats that show the emotional states of the characters are the body language of fiction. A writer can convey a lot by emphasizing what the characters leave unsaid.

Keeping these principles in mind, I've revised the sample dialogue:

Allegra crossed the nursing home lounge to the corner where Chester sat alone. "Hey there, Chester."

The old man's slack features snapped into a broad smile. "You're here."

Allegra sank into a chair beside Chester. "You know what I was thinking? Mondays are my favorite day."

"Can't be. You must have more fun on the weekends with your friends. Not here with an old fogey."

"Oh, yeah, like I have any friends. Like I ever get invited anywhere."

"Bad weekend?"

"Everyone my age is a jerk." Allegra shyly placed her hand on Chester's. "I like Mondays."

Try a rewrite of your own, either of this conversation or one from your own work, and don't forget to read it aloud. Now, how does that sound?

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Nichole Bernier at Beyond the Margins considers When Modernity Makes Plot Devices Obsolete: "There was a time you could count on good old-fashioned missed connections to hang a plot on. The letter never received, the person who wasn't home when the phone rang. But this sort of thing strains the credulity of readers these days."


Anonymous said...

Allegra saw Chester sitting in the corner alone. Crossed the nursing home lounge. "Hey there."

The old man's slack features snapped into a broad smile.

She said, "So, how are you feeling today?"

"Doing pretty well, you know, considering." He looked out the window. "Nice weather. Bet the water felt great during swim practice today, didn't it?"

"Yup." She sank into the chair beside him. "Ya know, Monday has to be my favorite day of the week."

"That so, huh?" He smiled, elbowed her gently. "You not having any fun on the weekends? Young person like yourself, you should be going out, visiting with friends."

"No." She looked down, sized up the linoleum. "Nobody at school…I…."

Chester placed his hand on her's. "What's wrong, hmm?"

She leaned over, put her head on his shoulder. "Everyone my age is a jerk."

Lisa Eckstein said...

Great rewrite, Anonymous!

Anonymous said...

this anonymous's piece doesn't connect these dialogue with emotions

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