Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Dialogue is a powerful tool for a writer, but it can cause a lot of unexpected problems. It’s not like jabbering away on paper. We have to use dialogue at the right time and in the right way for it to be effective. Here are some of the stumbling blocks.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Warning -- stay alert to the many ailments that can come between the lines of dialogue.
Identifiers, also known as attributives, are words such as ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ that tell us who’s speaking. For rhythm and pacing we have to put them in the right spots. We have to decide whether they belong at the beginning, middle or end of the dialogue. How should we mix them up so they don’t call attention to themselves or get in the way? Listen to how they sound.
The word ‘said’ can get monotonous if we use it too often, but be careful not to use too many replacement verbs that call attention to themselves. Here are a few: she chirped, he spat, she whined, he sneered, she cooed etc. These words make me draw pictures in my mind. Can you picture a girl really chirping or tweeting? Tweeting, maybe yes, but not in the context of talking.
It’s a bad idea to write long interchanges of conversation without any pauses in between. Do you know any long-winded people? I certainly do. If they’re boring in person, they’re even worse on the page. Readers tend to skip those parts and we, as writers, don’t want our readers to skip over anything!
So dialogue should be broken up and stretched out with pauses and breaks to the right length for the scene. It shouldn’t run down the page with breakneck speed, but it shouldn’t drag on and on either. Be aware of good pacing for the scene you’re writing. Obviously, an action scene is much faster paced than a romantic scene. If it’s not, try revising.
Dialogue interrupted by long blocks of description or too many attributions stop the flow. But when you’re writing description (weaving it in, of course!) it’s fine to break it up with a little dialogue. Always consider the flow and the pacing.
Commonplace, every day dialogue isn’t an attention grabber. It won’t interest anyone in reading the scene, but it’s easily cured. Simply delete all the greetings and niceties and superfluous chitchat. Start with the interesting stuff to draw a reader into the drama. Tedious dialogue is a terrible way for a writer to ease into a scene.
“Hello, how are you?”
“Fine, thanks. How are you?”
Dialogue used to convey information to the reader sounds fake and amateurish. People don’t talk this way and our characters shouldn’t either. Informative dialogue is often backstory where the writer is trying to fill the reader in on important events that already happened. But this is a clumsy way to do it and makes a reader roll her eyes. It can often start out with, “As you know…”
If the information is happening in the present, show it. Don’t have the characters just talk about it. Show, don’t tell. Don’t forget that.
Melodramatic dialogue can sound too cool, dramatic and clever. Sometimes it sounds overwrought. It’s definitely not the way most people talk. Use it sparingly and at the right moment.
Drama is about contrast. If everything is said in the same way, it’s not effective. (For example, I remember a pastor who overemphasized everything he said and gave every word equal importance. After a while nothing seemed really important.)
High drama can be conveyed in ways other than dialogue. Action along with dialogue might be better. If there’s too much melodrama, you can always tone it down. On the other hand, drama and emotion are necessary to a story. Finding a balance is the key.
Remember not all characters are melodramatic types. So don’t give them over-the-top dialogue to spout if it doesn’t fit their personality.
Romance and love scenes are prone to melodrama especially if the emotions are expressed in a lot of dialogue. Strong feelings can be shown in ways other than strong speech. Julie is the master of writing all about kissing and conveying emotion! But we know that, don’t we?
HARD TO FOLLOW
Dialogue can be hard to follow when a writer uses dialect or twang or too much slang. This will probably slow the reader down and be difficult to read.
It’s also hard to follow dialogue without identifiers (who’s saying what) or when there’s so much description or internalization between sentences of dialogue.
A good critique partner can tell you if your dialogue needs to be revised. It’s also important to read the dialogue aloud to see if it sounds natural.
Have you come across any other problems with dialogue? How have you corrected them?
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