Walking the Talk

My previous post addressed beginnings of stories/novels, yet before I get to endings, it is worthwhile to comment on the dialogue that might not only span all the in-between but, in fact, could very well be our means of beginning and ending if utilized effectively.  Yet again, I am drawing from the specific advice proffered at the writing conference I attended last weekend (sponsored by the organization Room to Write), lessons we may have learned time and again through various sources, but that I found particularly insightful when distilled during this focused workshop.

To begin with, dialogue is essential to a successful novel because it:

– teaches us about characters and what they might be feeling the second they open their mouths through tone, accent, dialect, and word choice.

– conveys information

– moves the story forward and quickens its pace

– gives immediacy/brings readers in by appealing to senses of sight and sound

– creates white space, which gives us a chance to visually “breathe”

To maintain this significant impact of dialogue, we must therefore keep the following in mind:

– When using dialogue to convey information that we do not through narration, keep the information provided brief.  Otherwise, it may come across as more than would be natural in a conversation.

– Voices engaged in dialogue need to be distinguished from one another—

* Test this distinction by reading dialogue out loud.

* Consider overdoing sense of voice (e.g., through dialect or word choice), as you can always go back and take it away.  Spelling phonetically or using curse words to add color to a character’s voice can be effective in distinguishing him/her, yet it can also be distracting from what they’re actually saying.

* With this previous point in mind, be aware that while dialogue more closely resembles natural speech, even in the best of books it is not exactly the same as we would really talk…and that’s okay.  Again, it may be due to avoiding distractions in exact pronunciation or errors in grammatical syntax (we don’t obey convention 100% when we talk vs. write).  Yet I also feel it may relate to the artistry of language that we might infuse through our characters’ speech—think of the TV series Mad Men…those characters certainly do not speak like ordinary people, but there is something clean and lyrical in everything they say that is a joy to listen to and truly raises the program to a higher plane of thought and reflection.

* Not every line of dialogue needs to be tagged.  This is more easily done, though, when only 2 characters are involved and it’s easier for the reader to track who is speaking the alternating lines.

* Regarding tags, you are better off using plain and simple “said.”  Also, avoid adverbs—whatever description you could provide of how a character says something should already come across through the dialogue itself.

– Incorporate the “business” that goes with the dialogue. (In the excerpt we read from Ian Rankin’s Let it Bleed, for example, one character prepared a cup of coffee for the other as they conversed.)  In doing so, you will:

* help the reader “see” the scene by bringing in movement and showing versus telling through the characters’ actions

* reinforce the reality of the situation, make it more authentic to real life

So, talking of talking, I’ll stop my yammering on this topic.  It is a critical one, though, to writing an effective, engaging, and believable piece, so bear these pointers in mind while also just having fun with bringing your characters to life when you grant them the gift of individual voice.


About thefallenmonkey

Primate that dapples in writing when not picking others' fleas or flinging its own poop. View all posts by thefallenmonkey

5 responses to “Walking the Talk

  • Lua

    Thank you for sharing this, it was such an informative post! 🙂
    I love writing dialogue and it is usually my favorite part of any story that I’m reading- we get to learn so much by the things that the character does or doesn’t say… But- like all good things, I find it difficult to write for it can easily sound tacky… I really don’t like it when I read a dialogue and go, “no, I’m not buying this, he would never say that!”

    • thefallenmonkey

      Why, thank you! I likewise found these tips so helpful at the workshop I’d attended…they make perfect sense when I reflect on the books I read, yet are not what I always think about when writing my own dialogue. I agree with you that dialogue is terribly fun to write, but I also fall into the same second-guessing of believability. I’m at a point now where there’s all this information I want to convey in my story and for lack of finding elsewhere to fit it in, I’m shoving it into characters’ conversations…so I need to step back and ask if that’s really what those characters would say, and my instinct is, um, well, probably not 🙂 I’m excited to now know about your blog and look forward to following it!

  • wendy robertson

    Dear Colleen
    It was great to have you at our roomtowrite workshop! You were lovely, a breath of fresh air. Your novel sounds interesting and I hope it evolves into something special.

    I would say avoid shoving dialogue in just to get information over. Dialogue can indicate personality, personal style, pre-occupations etc but this is just through the way the speaker uses language not through information s/he delivers.

    If, when you read it, it sounds unbelievable, cut it. This is why writing dialogue is hard, but is very powerful when it comes right. As we said at RTW, keep looking at how good writers do it. get the rhythms into your mind.

    Maybe we can hammer this out further at the November workshop.


    • thefallenmonkey

      Aw, thanks for stopping by my demented blog! Your words are too kind, and I’m so grateful for your advice–I am sitting with my project now and working through some of that cumbersome dialogue. I cannot wait for November’s workshop…as you can see, the March one inspired several of my recent blog posts 🙂 Your insights are valuable to me, and I look forwarding to following your blog as well!

  • POVs of the Published « The Fallen Monkey

    […] Coming up in my next three blog posts will be further advice provided on beginnings, endings, and dialogue.  […]

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