You Don’t Say…

Now, anyone who’s ever read my work knows I’m big fan of dialogue. As I’ve pointed out before, I’ve even gotten letters from my editors claiming some of my short stories to be 95% dialogue. While I’m not sure that’s completely fair, I am completely willing to admit you can often find my short stories in an anthology by flipping through it until you find one that has a huge chunk of dialogue in the middle of a page.

Now, is that a good thing? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, I seem to have made it work for me. And I’d think it’s a good things too since dialogue is what I find easiest to write. My narrative may have been less than stellar with my first couple of novels (Mary Sues, wordiness, and info dumps abound, I promise) but going back now the dialogue’s actually not that bad.

For some people, though, I know dialogue is the hardest part. On the NaNoWriMo Forums we find:

I always have a hard time writting dialogue so If someone could help me It would be appreciated.”

I think good dialogue is very hard to write. So I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it will require extra effort when it’s time to rewrite and revise… ”

I’m about 1,000 words into my NaNo and for some reason I”m stuck on dialogue.  When I wrote out the beginning of this conversation it sounded fine in my head, however, on paper/screen, it looks horrendous.”

Struggling with narrative and struggling with dialogue are both bad things (they make for stilted/unnatural reading) but for right now I will focus on some tips for writing better dialogue.

1. Listen. Just like people develop an ear for notes when they’re musicians (my French Horn-playing brother can pick out a flat note from a mile away) writers tend to develop an ear for language. Some people are better at it naturally than others, but if someone writes well, somehow or another they’ve figured out what sounds right.  Developing that ear is part of what makes writing get better over time (practice makes perfect after all) and while reading good writing can definitely help with that, when working on writing better dialogue, simply sitting down and listening can be one of your greatest tools.

In acquisitions, you see people put down all sorts of credits on their query letters (past publications, degrees, having worked as a journalist/technical writer, etc.) and you learn very quickly which credits mean something. The reason spending 20 years as a technical writer for a company doesn’t mean much on a query letter is that creative writing is very different from formal writing. Being a technical writer means that (hopefully) you have good spelling and grammar, but it doesn’t say you can write a good novel. People talk in fragments, they use poor grammar, they use slang. Where you’d never (again hopefully) find a piece of business writing that says, “Me and my guys…” You may very well find a character in a novel saying it, and making it work.

The more you listen to those speaking around you, the more you will be able to write dialogue naturally.

2. Don’t be too formal. As I said up above, people don’t talk in completely proper English (some seem to barely speak it at all). One of the most common problems I see in novels I’m editing with stilted dialogue is that, for some reason, the author has gotten rid of most of their contractions. Perhaps it comes from years of teachers trying to get us not to use contractions in formal essays (I know my teachers did) but creative writing is a completely different animal from formal/technical writing (it’s why writing “This is my first novel, but I’ve been a technical writer for X years” isn’t so helpful on your query letters, FYI). Taking contractions out of your dialogue makes your character sound awkward. It’s actually, I’ve found, one of the best ways to make your character sound like a non-native speaker. People use slang, people use improper grammar, people slur words. Don’t over do it, but embrace it for more natural dialogue.

2b. Don’t use stereotypes/slang you don’t know. Side note to the last two sentences of number 2, people use slang/improper grammar, but they aren’t stereotypes. Don’t try to force in slang you aren’t familiar with to try to make a [enter ethnicity/nationality/age here] character sound “natural” A little might be ok, but making a character say “wicked” or “dawg” every other sentence will sound just as unnatural as overly proper dialogue (and has the added bonus of often coming off rather insulting).

3. Don’t be long-winded. Unless your character is supposed to be a blowhard (or a Bond villain) keep dialogue short and to the point. Contractions, nicknames, abbreviations, people tend take just about any short cut they can use to cut down on the length of what they’re saying. Long monologues with a lot of unnecessary words comes off as unnatural.

4. Use punctuation properly. One of the biggest problems with written dialogue is that you just have the words, not the intonation/cadence you have in actual speech. “Why did you do that” can be said a million different ways, but how it’s read is dependent on your reader. Use commas properly to show small pauses, Periods to show full stops, and if you need to use italics (sparingly) to show emphasis (“Why did you do that?”) Don’t worry if using a period every once in a while ends up with a sentence fragment (re: people don’t speak in proper English). If something is an afterthought, a period might best suit the sentence. For example:

“I really want a dog or a cat.”

reads differently than:

“I really want a dog, or a cat.”

reads differently than:

“I really want a dog. Or a cat.”

4b. Don’t overuse punctuation. My old editor used to joke that every book she edited was only allowed five exclamation marks (well half-joked). Overusing punctuation can be just as bad as under-using it.

“I don’t know!” Works, the person is upset.

“I don’t know!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Makes it look like either the character is crazy or (at least to me) like it should be on a preteen’s MySpace page (do people still use MySpace?)

Punctuation is a fine balance, don’t be afraid to use it, but don’t go crazy with it (and please, please, please, DoN’t WrItE LiKe ThIs to show someone is drunk. Yes, I have seen that in a manuscript before. It was quickly edited out for “he slurred” and actions which showed he was drunk).

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3 thoughts on “You Don’t Say…

  1. thomaswrites says:

    Excellent points. Unlike yourself, I tend to find myself using too little dialogue so some pointers are much appreciated. I like the first one best – language and the way someone speaks has a rhythm that is hard to convey in writing. I like your blog so I shall check back again soon. cheers, Thomas

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