November 28, 2011

The High Cost of Realistic Dialogue

I've always prided myself on my dialogue. Maybe that's why I put so darn much of it in my stories. Since realistic dialogue is important to me, I hold myself to high standards when writing it.

I'm usually satisfied with how my dialogue sounds after I've taken the all-important step of reading an exchange out loud a few times to determine whether the words could naturally emerge from somebody's mouth. If the lines aren't flowing, I employ some of the useful tricks I've learned, including dropping beginnings of sentences ("Do you need anything at the store?" can become "Need anything at the store?") and adding the nonlinearity that's part of normal conversation.

But I often get hung up in doubt when it comes to the content of what my characters say to each other. I'm deathly afraid of writing dialogue that might come anywhere near the realm of "As you know, Biff, I worked with you at the DMV for thirty years before you embezzled all those vanity plate fees and fled to a country with no extradition treaty." It seems simple enough to avoid writing dialogue that has characters telling each other things they both know. Yet in practice, the problem is often much subtler.

Today I was working on a scene in which some characters get together for a visit. I needed them to discuss one character's job, and it seemed reasonable enough for the topic to come up since they hadn't seen each other in a while. But as soon as I started writing, I began to second-guess myself: "They're talking about this over dinner, but it's so important to the character's life, wouldn't it have come up earlier in the day? And we know the characters talked on the phone recently, so is it really possible they'd have new information to cover in this scene?" I honestly don't think any reader would have questioned the validity of the topic, but I couldn't make myself buy it until I changed things around to a scenario that satisfied me.

In general, I probably spend the majority of my staring-into-space time trying to figure out how my characters can believably start discussing whatever topic I need them to talk about in a particular scene. The topic always belongs in the scene because the characters have something to say about it, but I get stuck on how to bring it up. I may have an outline for their conversation, but I need my characters to behave like real people, who rarely sit down to talk with an agenda in mind.

In the same scene with the update on the character's job, I also had to find a justification to discuss a different character's health, plus include a callback to an earlier scene. It was a complicated maneuver, and there was a lot more staring than writing before I got through the scene. The conversation now all fits together to my satisfaction, and I hope it will appear natural and effortless to the reader.

So that's one page of dialogue completed. And as I said, there's a lot of dialogue in my novel. Now you have some idea of why this is all taking so long.


Lisa Frankfort said...

Hey Lisa E! It's Lisa F here;-)

Ooooooh, I enjoyed reading this! It definitely resonated for me; I found myself nodding and mmm-hmmming in public.

One technique I typically try to get needed information across to the reader is invest the scene with text and subtext, or use the scene to illustrate something further about the characters - one person begins to say the important info and his words are cut off by another character. That might prompt a rebuke by another character, out to prove he wasn't paying attention. The 'rebuker' then encourages the first character to continue, prodding, perhaps filling in the important info. To the embarrassment of the first character.

I try to 'hear' what each character says that isn't making it out of their mouth (or onto the paper). Like, 'why is he telling us this? He already told me this on the phone.' or 'look at him, he hates being the center of attention. leaving out all the 'good stuff'!'

It's such a challenge to get realistic dialogue 'right'! And add into the mix each person's background, speech patterns, age, and how close they are and how they feel about the people they are currently with. But it's sooooo gratifying when you succeed:-)

Lisa Eckstein said...

Hey, Lisa! It's especially cool that you commented on this, because when I was starting the post and thinking about various good dialogue advice I've received, I remembered that you once gave me some very useful tips on streamlining the dialogue in my previous manuscript.

I like your thoughts about paying attention to how the characters' relationships and issues can affect what they do and don't say in a scene. These are good techniques for getting closer to dialogue that makes sense on all the necessary levels.

Thanks for providing good dialogue advice once again!

Anna Scott Graham said...

My WIP is a mix of heavy dialogue/narrative prose, and I have to admit I LOVE writing those back and forth exchanges. But it is tricky, making sure each word counts, and that it sounds legitimate. Looking forward to reading yours!

Lisa Eckstein said...

Yes, I adore writing dialogue, but it's tricky! Thanks, Anna.

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