05 February 2006

How to Write Dialogue?

A friend beginning to write fiction asked me how to write effective dialogue. I think I said some platitude or another, something like, "Listen to people," and then changed the subject. Then Jed Hartman wrote up some observations of dialogue, and I got to thinking about it again.

The question has stuck with me because it's so difficult to give any good advice about it, and difficult even to argue about it. For instance, Jed really liked the dialogue in The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, while I did not. Who's right? Both and neither. Certainly there are times when dialogue is obviously clunky or too expository, etc., but once a writer has moved past a beginner's mistakes, dialogue becomes entirely a matter of "ear" -- the writer's and the reader's. (For some good basic lessons on dialogue, check out Robert Sawyer's advice, Holly Lisle's points and excercises, and this list of pitfalls and exercises.)

To move beyond the most basic points about how dialogue works, we need to think about it as a transaction between the writer and the reader, one that relies on the other elements of the writing. "Effective dialogue" is not a single, universal entity. A style of dialogue that is effective in one story may not be effective in another, and whether dialogue is effective depends not just on the writer's skill, but the reader's sense of tone, as well as how the reader constructs an idea of what function the dialogue serves in the story.

Dialogue is not just about how characters talk. It is, more than anything else, a writer's trick. Dialogue in even the most "realistic" story is not how real people talk -- it is a convention created by the writer and accepted by the reader. The most effective realistic dialogue is dialogue that supports the illusion to such an extent that the reader forgets they are reading and begins to hear the words in their mind's ear, convinced that this is, indeed, how real people talk.

If you want to see the difference between real dialogue and fictional dialogue, record a conversation, and transcribe exactly what you hear. Written down, it will usually seem confusing, repetitive, fragmentary, and, paradoxically, unrealistic (or at least mannered), because our minds are not used to converting pure speech into text.

If writers want to improve their dialogue-writing skills, the best advice may not be to eavesdrop on conversations, but rather to look at a wide variety of fiction and decide what seems effective and what doesn't. Look at something from the 19th century, then something from today. Read a variety of contemporary playwrights -- David Mamet, Caryl Churchill, Tony Kushner, Wole Soyinka, Edward Albee, Suzan-Lori Parks, Wallace Shawn -- to see the range of possibilities, everything from the most colloquial to the most ritualized and declamatory (each is effective when it serves the overall purposes of the play). Compare Elmore Leonard and Alice Munro, Carole Maso and Stephen King, Toni Morrison and Kelly Link, Hemingway and Faulkner, Yasunari Kawabata and Louisa May Alcott, Don DeLillo and E.E. "Doc" Smith, J.M. Coetzee and Grace Paley, The Graduate and JR. And and and.

If you read and pay attention to the dialogue in the work of various writers from different cultures and historical periods, you'll find some that impress you and some you find almost unreadable. This is a test of you as a reader, but you can apply it to the sense of yourself as a writer, because it's likely that the rhythms and styles that most appeal to you as a reader do so because they match the conventions your brain has most deeply absorbed, and that will be the style that is easiest for you to write well in. (I'm not saying you should always write in that style, or that good writers never question and challenge what comes easiest to them, but rather that you might as well start with what is most comfortable and work out from there.)

Dialogue can serve many purposes. It is as much about tone and pacing in a story as it is about conveying information about the situation or characters. A lot of short conversations speed up the reading, while long speeches are generally slower to read, as are conversations broken up by narration. Dialogue filled with content is slower than dialogue that is suggestive and apparently empty. Blunt dialogue is different in effect from subtle or evasive dialogue. The use of speech tags is important, too -- often, we want readers to know exactly who is speaking, but not always, and a strategically deleted "he said" can be useful in some situations: it forces the reader to stop and think, or it plunges them into a confusion that forces them to sort things out, or to see characters as identical. Punctuation is often vitally important: there is a difference between a character whose words dissolve in... and a character whose discussion gets slashed with-- The use or lack of quotation marks or (as James Joyce and Hal Duncan prefer) opening dashes can create different tonal effects. Stories where the dialogue is not set apart from the narrative with quotation marks, such as many of Grace Paley's and Jose Saramago's, feel different from stories that use the conventional punctuation; there is a somewhat dreamier feel, one where the talking and the narrative are not as distanced from each other. Unrealistic, stilted, "literary" dialogue -- dialogue that works against the dominant conventions of realistic fiction -- can be valuable for creating irony or humor, or to highlight disconnections between elements of the fiction.

Certainly for many writers dialogue is a means to a narrative end more than a true skill of its own, but while dialogue is one item among many, it rewards careful thought and attention, because it opens up quite a range of possible effects for a writer sensitive to its potential.

16 comments:

  1. Dialogue in Rangergirl was my least favorite part. I saw why it was being done, but it didn't work for me. Great post.

    For years, I tried to make dialogue just not be a weakness. Only recently have I begun to make it a strength. It's really an interesting area of fiction writing to study.

    JeffV

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  2. [i]Jed really liked the dialogue in The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl, while I did not. Who's right? [/i]

    You are.

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  3. My problem now is getting them to shut up.

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  4. Great post.

    Expounding on a couple of important points about dialogue. It must fit the tone of the story and the culture in which it is written. Dialogue in a literary novel will be completely different than in a mystery or SF story, and dialogue from a white male from Seattle will be completely different than from an African-American female from Atlanta. The expressions, the rhythms, the speed all change.

    In addition, dialogue must advance the story, whether it is to reveal something about the speakers or about the story. If you want to confuse with your dialogue, you'd better know how to do it well, because readers aren't forgiving.

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  5. Kameron, I sympathize. I've written pages and pages just from the voices in my head yammering on and on...

    M.D. -- I'm not, myself, willing to make any such large statements about any element of fiction always needing to do something. In general, as a broad principle, yes, maybe. But I'd be wary of saying that all African-American females from Atlanta talk alike, or all white guys from Seattle, nor do I think advancing the story is always the goal or should be, and while certainly plenty of readers aren't forgiving of this, that, or another thing, others are, and others are more than forgiving, in fact, some are positively appreciative. If the reader is an editor you're trying to sell to, then it may be a problem if you're writing something that doesn't appeal to their tastes and prejudices, but otherwise... I also think it can be productive for a story to use elements in unexpected ways, to mix and mingle.

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  6. I've never considered dialogue to be a particular strength of mine. If anything, I try to rein in my tendency to let characters go on and on. The dialogue in Rangergirl is definitely getting mixed responses, though, so I'm unsure what lesson to take from this.

    Then again, I wrote most of that dialogue five years ago, so my conversation-writing has probably mutated considerably since then anyway.

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  7. Great post, Matt. I love work that features great dialogue (like many of the writers you mentioned) and I've always considered dialogue my strength as a writer.

    I would disagree that the dialogue in a literary novel would be different than a SF novel. Why would it have to be? The dialouge in Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney, for instance, suggests the possbilities.

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  8. Matt,

    I never intended to say that all African Americans sounded alike, or that all white men from Seattle spoke the same way. I was talking more about the context of the story.

    As for dialogue not advancing the story, why should it be different than the rest of the prose? It seems to me that every word counts, and should do so in a dialogue as well. Just my two cents, if I can use a cliché.

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  9. Certainly, yes, most of the time, and just about all the time with commercial writing, dialogue serves to move the story forward. I'm just uncomfortable with blanket statements about what it, or any literary element, must always do. Not all fiction is, or should be, about having a story and moving it forward, and every reader is likely to disagree about whether, and how, each word counts.

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  10. Belatedly:

    Good comments and thoughts. It hadn't occurred to me, for example, that there might be occasions on which one would intentionally create ambiguity by omitting speech tags, but it makes sense now that you say it.

    I certainly agree that dialogue serves different purposes in different works. I think that's part of an important general point, really: all these things we talk about, dialogue and setting and characterization and theme and plot and point of view and tone and mood and style and whatever else, they're all tools in the toolbox (or maybe I meant they're all types of tools), and different tools are suited for different tasks.

    I should note -- while not taking away from the fact that I'm still enjoying Rangergirl, and that a line of dialogue in it made me laugh out loud this morning -- that I think the kind of dialogue I refer to as "snappy" follows different rules from a lot of the dialogue used in other contexts. There are all sorts of works for which it's not suited at all. ...I wrote and then deleted three or four different sentences here, none of which ended up being coherent, so I think I'll stop here.

    But I did want to say one other thing: Thank you for not claiming, as so many people in the sf world do, that Elmore Leonard's dialogue is unequivocally the best dialogue possible. (Okay, so I'm exaggerating. Still, almost every sf writer I've heard talk about dialogue wants to write like Leonard, and recommends him as their sole answer to the question of how to get better at writing dialogue.) I think Leonard's dialogue is fine, and very well-suited to his books, but as you noted, it's just one style of dialogue among many possible.

    ...Okay, one other thing: I've found tabletop roleplaying games to be useful in improving my dialogue-writing skills. Trying to get so far into a character's head that you're speaking in character can be a really useful exercise. ...Which reminds me that I was surprised not to see you mention reading dialogue aloud; that's obviously not suited to the intentionally stilted or experimental forms of dialogue, but I strongly recommend that anyone who's trying to write naturalistic dialogue try reading it out loud.

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  11. Re "snappy"--it works for PG Wodehouse and it works for satire or irony and it works for when you want readers to think of characters as stupid or vapid or unaware of life as most people know it. But it's the hardest thing to do well and the easiest to make into a goddawful ear-bleeding annoyance.

    JeffV

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  12. just discovered this insight, thanks. I'm very intimidated by dialogue.

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  13. Excellent suggestion, to look at dialogue in books and decide which ones work the best, instead of listening to real conversations. I've done that sometimes without really thinking about it. Now that you've brought it to my attention, I'm going to do it more.

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  14. Thanks for your advice it was very useful, although I have a question.

    Is it bad form to use italics for inner voice dialogue.

    E.g: I'm dying for a cake, thought suzi.

    I find it suits my story quite well, but someone has mentioned it to be technically wrong.

    Any suggestions?

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  15. Excellent blog first aff, plenty interesting stuff here.

    Mamet said dialogue is the appropriation of everyday speech. Therefore it doesn't have to sound or feel real at certain points. Read it back is the best advice about it: if it sounds ridiculous, chuck it.

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