Monday, April 23, 2012

TUESDAY TIPS AND TIDBITS – What are your characters saying?

In a continuing attempt to help new (and not so new) authors better understand the mechanics of writing, we are offering our twist on writing tips. Today, it’s DIALOG.

Dialogue (or it can be spelled ‘dialog’) – what your characters say in your story – can be a crucial component of your fiction. However, it can also be one of the most difficult things for a writer to write well. Many beginning writers are afraid of dialog, and some just plain don’t get it. Even some experienced writers go overboard with dialog and use it when it might not be the most appropriate choice for a particular segment of a story.

What’s so complicated about dialog, and why is it so darned important anyway? Dialog is an excellent way to break up monotonous narrative, show interactive tension, ramp us suspense, delivery story surprises, and demonstrate characterization. Done right, it can make a story sing. Done wrong, and it can tell a reader you don’t know what in the hell you’re doing.

DISSECTING DIALOG. The first problem many writers have with dialog is that they don’t understand how it’s structured. The truth is, dialog can take on many forms when narrative delivery descriptions or ‘tags’ are added. Basically, dialog consists of the quoted matter (words that are actually ‘spoken’) and the delivery part or ‘tag,’ if present. Things can get dicey when it comes to figuring out how to correctly punctuate dialog.

The US rule is, what is spoken by a character is bracketed by double quote marks, like so:

“I don’t really want to go on that trip.”

Add a tag like he said to it, and the punctuation instantly gets complicated. The US rule is, the tag must contain a transitive speech-delivery verb (like said, yelled, cried, etc. – NOT laughed, smiled, nodded, or other actions that don't deliver spoken words) in order to be connected to the dialog with a comma or lowercase tag as part of the total dialog sentence like so:

He said, “I don’t really want to go on that trip.”

“I don’t really want to go on that trip!” he yelled.

“I don’t,” he said with a sneer, “really want to go on that trip.”

Note that in all three examples above, the tag is connected to the dialog so the quoted matter and the tag together form a complete overall sentence. The transitive verb allows that because transitive means the verb, by its meaning, requires an object, a what, a something to act upon. He said what (what is the object of the verb said, or more precisely the quoted dialog portion of the sentence – “I don’t really want to go on that trip.”)

Note that the following example using spoke instead of said changes the structure because spoke is not a transitive verb that requires an object. Therefore the tag and the dialog would not be joined together as one sentence because spoke cannot take an object in the sentence structure:

He turned and spoke. “I don’t really want to go on that trip.”

AS IF THINGS WEREN'T ALREADY COMPLICATED. Dialog can be just one sentence or sentence fragment or even just one word. It can be several paragraphs long. There is no limit on how much speaking a particular character can do in a story, but common sense dictates that writers should not allow their characters to have a monolog that is pages long, because it can become quite tiresome to read.

The trouble starts when you have two or more characters speaking. Then you have to give visual signals and other clues to let your reader know that a speaker is changing in the scene. That is done by putting everything a different speaker says in a different paragraph, like the following example:

Lydia clapped her hands together. “Okay, everybody! Let’s get started. Please pay attention.”
“Wait,” George interrupted. “Before you start bossing everyone around...” He stood and circled around the table to face Lydia. “I just want to point out that you are not the jury foreman. Dick is.” He pointed at the small man adjusting his thick glasses.

Note that in the US, when quoted dialog is broken into more than one paragraph, the convention is to not put end quotes in the first paragraph, but to start the new paragraph with beginning quotes and include end quotes only when the dialog is interrupted by a tag or other narrative content. Example:

Lydia clapped her hands together. “Okay, everybody! Let’s get started. Please pay attention.”
She turned to her right. “George, would you do the honors and pass out an instruction packet to everyone? 
“Now, people, before you open your folders, please pay attention to the following instructions...”
“Miss Garner,” George interrupted, sounding a bit puzzled. “I don't see the instruction packets anywhere.”

A lot of common advice will tell you never to vary your tag verbs from said with the reasoning that it is so common a word that it is virtually invisible. But that really isn’t true. If you used he said or she said in every line or paragraph of dialog, it will get monotonous. But if you don’t use enough tags, the reader may not be able to follow who’s talking. So you have to use common sense and make some judgment calls. Used sparingly, I think it’s perfectly alright and even recommended you change your speech delivery verbs to fit the dialog occasion and use yelled or whatever when appropriate. However, the dialog content itself should give the reader plenty of clues as to how the conversation is going, whether it is subdued or heated. So use tags only when necessary to remind the reader who is speaking or to give clues as to what’s going on while the characters are speaking.

NO TALKING HEADS. Narrative that accompanies your dialog should show readers what your characters are doing and where they are while they are talking. Otherwise you just end up with disembodied voices – talking heads. Have your characters interacting with their environment, objects, each other, whatever. Just don’t have them yacking and not doing anything while they’re yacking. Here’s what I’m talking about:

“Have you seen Zach yet?” Bo said.
“No, man,” Koz said.
“He was supposed to be here by now,” Bo said.
“Dude, chill, will ya? You’re blockin’ my light and bustin’ my buzz,” Koz said.

Now, let’s try it again with some environmental interaction:

Bo opened the patio door and walked out by the pool. “Have you seen Zach yet?”
Koz shifted on the poolside lounger, trying to avoid Bo’s shadow. “No, man.”
“He was supposed to be here by now.” Bo checked his watch again.
“Dude, chill, will ya?” Koz waved him off. “You’re blockin’ my light and bustin’ my buzz.”

With a few references to the surroundings, you present your reader with a more detailed picture of the environment where the conversation is taking place. With some body language, you give your reader a better impression of what your characters are doing and what their attitude is. Of course the dialog alone should help give some idea of attitude in word choices and delivery. Just don’t go overboard with body language and external details, or you will overwhelm your dialog. Let the content of the dialog carry the scene and add the extra narrative clues sparingly, just to add spice to the dialog.

WHAT DIALOG CAN – AND CAN’T – DO FOR YOUR STORY. Beginning authors oftentimes try to make dialog do too much. They try to sneak in backstory infodumps by using the all too familiar technique commonly called ‘As You Know, Bob.’ This basically consists of two characters talking to each other, one explaining to the other key elements of backstory or plot development – oftentimes when the listening character already knows what’s being explained (thus, ‘as you know...’). Here’s an example of ‘As You Know, Bob,’ riddled with beginner errors like spelling out too much for the reader, assuming the reader can’t follow simple clues to come to his/her own conclusions. This underestimating the intelligence of the reader can be off-putting and downright insulting for the reader to wade through. Supposing this is a murder mystery, taking the approach of telling everything to the reader in this step-by-step method takes all the fun out of it because it does not allow the reader to think for himself and draw conclusions on his own – because the author is too busy telling him what he wants him to conclude. Bad for the author, and bad for the reader. Also, some needlessly repeated words and unnecessary ‘conversational’ phrases are thrown in there too, just because beginners also do that a lot too. See if you can pick them out.

Ted turned to his partner, Bob, and said, “As you know, Bob, we just started this investigation and have no clue about the identity of the murder victim. However, evidence surrounding the body in the hotel room strongly suggests that the woman was a prostitute hired by the visiting dignitary, Chancellor von Dreschel.”
Bob nodded his head. “Yes, Ted, I was there when we found the girl’s calling card from Kelly’s Escort Service in her handbag.”
“So, Bob, I think we should pay a visit to Kelly’s Escort Service right now.”
“Yes, Ted, I think you’re right. They can tell us who they sent on this ‘assignment.’ Then we will have a better idea of how to confirm the murder victim’s identity.”

Now let’s try a do-over with a little tweaking and more finesse:

Ted pulled off his latex gloves and frowned. “Chancellor von Dreschel appears to have been a very naughty boy. With issues.”
Bob sighed and nodded. “I’ll call the number on that card we found in the vic’s handbag. Somebody at Kelly’s Escort Service ought to be able to give me a name to go with the body.” He shook his head as he looked down at the hotel room’s blood-soaked carpet where the mutilated corpse had been found. “Damn shame. She must have been a beautiful girl – until that kraut bastard got hold of her.”

Note that both samples above have the same characters saying basically the same thing but in drastically different ways. The second example gives a lot more detail but actually uses fewer words (95 vs. 122 in the first example). If you’re new to writing dialog, study the differences between these two passages carefully. This may help you recognize what’s considered good dialog – and what’s not so good. Your objective should be to write the good stuff.

Sometimes what characters don’t say is just as important as what they do say. You can add a lot of personal tension with what you leave out of your characters’ dialog. See the second example below and note how little the characters actually say. How they don’t say a lot of stuff becomes much more meaningful than if they had a full-blown argument with volleyed insults. The first example is the full-blown argument. The second is more subdued, with fewer barbs exchanged. Both have attitude, but depending on the mood of the scene you’re trying to create, one approach may work better than the other.

Gary stepped back. “I don’t like what you’re saying, Jolene.”
“Too bad, so sad.” Jolene flipped him the bird from across the room. “You don’t get to tell me what I can say and what I can’t.”
“But ... but I thought we were together.
“Think again, sucka!” Jolene propped her hands on her hips and wagged her head side to side in that defiant stance he had absolutely grown to hate. “I’m with Tom now.”
“Tom?” Gary felt the blood drain from his face. She’d been cheating on him with Tom? “He’s a loser!”
“Hey!” she shouted, thrusting an arm in the air. “Who you callin’ a loser? Tom’s my man!”
“You ... you deserve Tom!”
“Damn right I do!”

Here’s the more subdued version with less verbal jousting, but no less emotional:

Gary pulled his hands from the tabletop and folded them in his lap. “What are you saying, Jolene?”
Jolene sipped her coffee slowly, darting a glance at him and then quickly looking away.
“I ... I thought we were ... together.”
Jolene sighed heavily and set her cup down in the saucer. The unexpected clatter made Gary wince as if she’d slapped him. He knew what was coming ... he knew.
“Gary...” she said softly, staring at her cup. “I’m with Tom now.” She looked up sharply, her eyes pleading. “I-I wanted to tell you before, but–”
“But you didn’t.” He huffed, suddenly close to crying, but he choked it all back. Why should I even care? Tom is such a loser. And if she’d rather–
He shook his head and clenched the napkin lying in his lap. Taking a deep breath, he calmed himself and dropped the napkin on the table. He couldn’t make himself look at her as he grumbled, “You deserve Tom.”
“Thank you, Gary,” Jolene said, sounding relieved. “I was so hoping you’d understand.”

Whichever version you prefer over the other, you can see how differently the same scene can be played with a few subtle changes in body language and dialog delivery. Which brings up the next topic...

MAKING IT SOUND REAL. Every character you write should have a unique voice. Sometimes that’s not entirely possible, because many characters of the same ethnic and economic background will talk similarly and use the same type of vocabulary and cadence. However, when one social group meets another, differences immediately become apparent due to accents and colloquial expressions, along with vocabulary and modes of speaking. The trick is to make your written representation of dialog for people with accents or unusual speaking habits readable while still conveying that uniqueness of character. For instance, a British nobleman’s attempt to get a woman’s attention will be quite different from the same attempt by an LA gang member. Can you guess which is which?

“Pardon, madam, could you please step aside and allow me to pass by?”

“Yo, bitch, move!”

 Many authors take care listening to real people talk so they understand the cadence of everyday speaking and learn how to write halting and impromptu dialog. However, every author should take care to edit out all the ‘ahems’ and ‘uhs’ and ‘you knows’ heard when real people speak, and just put a few pauses in for the desired effect. Never overdo an accent either. The Southern accent is the one most abused in writing dialog, and in the hands of an inexperienced writer, it can be rendered almost unreadable, like the following example:

“Ahh wahhnchall ta know ahh wasn’t thar the night mahh bruthahh wuz kilt.”

Here’s the translation with just a hint of the accent:

“I want y’all to know I wasn’t there the night my brotha was kilt.”

Comprenez-vous du fran├žais? Adding foreign phrases can enrich your dialog, but take care to do that sparingly and only when the meaning can be inferred by surrounding context. Also, make sure the addition of language that would be foreign to your target reading audience is really necessary for the story. Don’t just throw some French in there because you took three years of French in high school and want to impress your readers with how cultured you are. And last, take extra care to use the correct spelling and syntax for your foreign phrases so that a reader who is familiar with the language won’t catch you having your character say ‘stinky soap’ when you wanted to convey ‘beautiful day.’

And last, resist the urge to create an entirely new language for your sci-fi alien or Middle Earth fantasy characters. It’s an incredible investment of time and has already been done by others. And really, who speaks Klingon, except at geekfests? Most of your readers will not want to wade through a bunch of gibberish just because you want to show them how clever and industrious you are to write your whole novel in your own made-up language.

IN CLOSING, dialog is the heart of most fiction. Make sure you understand how to make it work for you and let it help enrich your writing. Every character has something to say, just make sure it’s what you want your readers to hear.

Pat Morrison, Penumbra Publishing


Natasha Larry said...

YAY! Great blog post. I'm so happy you touched on this topic. There is nothing that kills an otherwise good book for me more than boring characters and unrealistic or bad dialogue.

Great advice, as always.



This is awesome and SOOOO HELPFUL! I often get caught up in strange dialogue habits that I have. Order, set up, punctuation, are usually my biggest issues. YIKES!

"Thanks for this, PAT!" yelled Nova.

Natasha Larry said...

LoL! You are such a nutcase, I love it.

Learning is fun.

Penumbra Publishing said...

Thanks, ladies. Dialog can make or break a book, and is one of the biggest reasons books get rejected for publishing.


Charles O'Keefe said...

Hi all :)

Excellent article. I find dialog especially difficult to make realistic and not do the "info dump". Letting readers discover clues and important aspects of your story is important (as you correctly point out). I'll be sure to keep this one to refer to.

Oh and I am one of those geeks that speaks Klingon, I gave a talk at a convention for 4 years on how to speak basic Klingon in fact and I got to yell in a recent fan made movie :-) I had to point it just because it was a funny coincidence. Thanks for the helpful article Pat! =)

Penumbra Publishing said...

You're welcome, Charles. Thanks for reading.


Penumbra Publishing said...

Klingon ... OK, my sister was going to enter a Klingon beauty pageant but she couldn't find the right boots.


Walter Knight said...

I posted Klingon babes on my website because that's one of my fantacies. Sorry, that's way off topic.

Great article.

Penumbra Publishing said...

Walt, I always suspected you were way off ... topic, that is.