Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Dialogue done right

I'm still waiting to hear back from 3 of the giveaway winners. But, for all intents and purposes, we're back to our regularly-scheduled randomness here at Tales of an Intrepid Pantster.

Today, for no reason at all, I wanted to talk about dialogue.

I can't be the only person this has happened to. I'm reading along, liking the characters, the description, the world-building. Then, the characters open their mouths, and it's like a needle scratching across a record. (If you're too young to know what that sounds like, substitute "nails on a chalkboard." Wait, are some of you too young for that, too?)

For a story to be good, all of the elements need to come together. But dialogue is the one that bothers me the most, probably because it doesn't strike me as difficult. One has to put words into the character's mouths that those characters would say, and that convey more than the words do.

Okay, so when I put it like that, I can see where people are running into difficulty. Let's break it up into the two pieces. The first half of that is to use words that the characters would use. This will vary from one character to the next depending on educational background, regional dialect, mood, general outlook on life, age, how much they're trying to impress the person they're addressing, status, or a number of other factors. No two characters should sound exactly alike. Nor should they sound like they're quoting a textbook or making a speech. People don't do that in everyday dialogue. Your character may expostulate at length, but are the rest of your characters patient enough to sit through that every single time? Because chances are, your audience isn't.

The best way to check if your dialogue sounds like something that character would use is to read it aloud, which works with all kinds of editing, as I outline in the linked post. If your tongue trips over sentences you've put in your characters' mouths, or if you can't get it out in one breath, you'll want to rewrite. Also, if you can't imagine saying that aloud in similar circumstances, you'll want to find a better way to put it.

The second half of that is to convey more than the words do. This gets down to word choice. Someone who's annoyed will speak in short, clipped tones. Someone who's relaxed and content will choose longer, languorous words. You don't have to add unnecessary and clunky adverbs to your dialogue tags if the words the characters speak do that work for you.

As for the words, themselves, they will convey information, but not as much as you think. Dialogue can be a good way of conveying information, but it can also turn a book into a wallbanger if you rely on it too heavily. People don't discuss things they already know, unless they're a forgetful married couple. Don't review things characters already know through dialogue, and really don't use it to review things your reader already knows. The latter is what exposition is for (when telling isn't always bad), and the former is repetition, which is annoying. People also don't discuss things that are obvious or common sense, unless they're making sure the person they're talking to isn't a moron. Having a character roll his or her eyes following obvious statements or questions is fine; having them answered earnestly will have me wondering if I overestimated the characters' IQs.

I've read an awful lot of books that can't manage dialogue with a decent flow that people would actually say, and it leaves me scratching my head. Is there a writing equivalent of tone deafness? Because bad dialogue, to me, is as easy to ignore as a five-alarm fire next door. I can't be the only one.

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