Friday, June 20, 2014

You talkin' to me?

One thing I've learned over years of freelance writing and editing is that writing dialogue? Is not easy. It's bad enough that as a writer, you're expected to create characters—poof!—just out of thin air! You also have to bring them to believability in your story, use them to provide information and make them sound like actual people and not just random words that fall out of your brain (even though that's basically what you're doing as a writer).

Another thing I've learned is the value of resources. I don't have all the answers, but I have access to them. When I'm trying to consider what makes for good dialogue, I know that the best resource available to me is close at hand—my own bookshelf. Reading is a necessary part of writing, whether you read for fun or with the strict purpose of bettering your craft, there are likely books within easy reach that can help you succeed.

From the "Reading for Fun" Pile

Novels and short stories reveal (usually) effective and compelling dialogue in action. There are some snippets of dialogue that stay with a person forever. Good dialogue, really good dialogue ... you don't even notice it. It's just so natural and easy to read. Think of the scenes that stick with you from your best-loved classics (my own include Alice in Wonderland and To Kill a Mockingbird). Reading well-written dialogue, you won't find yourself confused as to who said what to whom and why; the words in quotes, the dialogue tags, the emotion; it all comes through.

Dialogue isn't just your characters interacting with one another; it's how you bring your story to life, literally breathing voice into them. Through dialogue, you can relay a sense of place and time simply with your word choices.
“What does one do in town?” I asked.

“Oh, there’s so much to see at the stores,” Alice gushed. “New fabrics and trimmings, new hats and stockings.”

“And the nicest treats,” said Lelia, her pretty face widened by a grin.

“Cookies and ice cream—”

“Or salted peanuts!”

My stomach growled.

“And don’t forget the boys!” Fannie Bell batted her eyelashes. “That’s the best treat of all.” *
It's clear in the sample above that the events don't take place in the current time. The words aren't overly out of the ordinary, but the author took care to use them in such a way that she's illustrating the time frame. Something as simple as a word choice or the order of words spoken provides more information  to the reader as it reveals the mindset of the characters in question.
“Camille. Come sit.” She beckoned her cloudy hands toward me. “No! Get a glass first from the back kitchen. You can have a drink with Mother. With your mother.”

This should be miserable, I murmured as I grabbed a tumbler. But underneath that, a thought: time alone with her! A leftover rattle from childhood. Get that fixed.

My mother poured recklessly but perfect, capping off my glass just before it overflowed. Still, a trick to get it to my mouth without spilling. She smirked a little as she watched me. Leaned back against the newel post, tucked her feet under her, sipped.

“I think I finally realized why I don’t love you,” she said. **
Actions and description together can be terrifically helpful in revealing character. The damaged mother/daughter relationship can be read very clearly through these words and the last sentence of the exchange provides a verbal punch to the reader's gut.

From the "Professional" Pile

In my editing and writing books, pretty much to a number they all address the topic of dialogue. One of my favorites is from Chuck Wendig's 250 Things You Should Know About Writing: "Easy isn't the same as uncomplicated." Meaning, dialogue moves the story along quickly—it's like the straight part of the racetrack, where your reader can gain speed—details are provided along with action and setting, but it still provides something substantial to your story. Dialogue shouldn't be disposable, it should be necessary to what you're trying to say.

Elmore Leonard famously told writers to "leave out the parts readers tend to skip" and this applies to dialogue as well—maybe most of all. When you write your dialogue, consider the parts that are often left out in speech. Words are shortened into contractions, some slang, some affectation, but you mustn't overdo it. Relying too heavily on dialect or accent often proves to be more of a distraction than an effective tool. 

A few tips for strengthening your own dialogue:
  1. Read your dialogue aloud, using the words and punctuation you wrote to guide your emotion and inflection. Where do you need to add more? Delete something? What's effective?
  2. Listen to other people speak. Go to a coffee shop, a mall, some public place that puts you in the company of others—especially helpful if you're writing from a different perspective (someone older or younger, or the opposite sex, for instance). Take notes about how the voices sound, the speech patterns, words used.
  3. If you're writing in a different time period, find books, audiobooks or films set in that time frame and immserse yourself in the sound of the language. If your hero is a soldier living in 1908, he will sound much different than a teacher living in 2008. Research the words commonly used.
  4. Consult a reference. There are so many considerations with dialogue beyond what I've discussed here and even more references to advise you on creating effective dialogue.
  5. Don't stop writing!

Quoted material:
* Gensler, Sonia. The Revenant, Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2011 ** Flynn, Gillian. Sharp Objects: A Novel, Broadway Books, 2006