Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Dialogue for the 21st Century.

How he thinks is how he speaks.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the few books that dealt with fiction writing advised writers to use, oh, thirty percent dialogue and seventy percent narrative.  By mid twentieth century it was a forty/sixty split and by the end it was at least fifty/fifty.

So what about our shiny new century?  What is the currently advised ratio of dialogue and narrative?  I’m not certain, actually, but my best guess is that the attitude surrounding dialogue these days is excess is not nearly enough. 

I’m kidding, sort of, because the ratio of dialogue to narrative has increased.  At a minimum it’s  sliding to the other side.  The average new novel is now at least fifty/fifty, with some moving to forty/sixty.  Part of the reason for this increase is the popularity of deep third person point of view, which often makes it difficult to write extensive narrative without making your character look obsessive.

Those who hold back from writing dialogue tell me they don’t know how to make characters actually sound like two people really talking.  Well, it isn’t all that complicated.  What is complicated is how to make it interesting, how to make it move the story.  And it’s important to master the skill.  Nothing endears readers to a story more than dialogue that sounds natural while at the same time relating what the story is about. 


What makes good dialogue hard to produce is that it must read like real people talk and also not read like real people talk. Good dialogue simply creates the illusion of being natural while performing the function of telling your story.  It often takes years to develop an ear that translates to good writing.  Here are a few tips on how to get a head start and what to avoid and on writing like real people talk.


Avoid formal language or strictly adhere to the rules of grammar.  Nobody talks that way.
Think about it.

Use contractions. Exceptions might be made if English is the speaker’s second language, but in normal conversation people mostly run their words together as in “we’re agonna go to the concert tonit’” Okay, so you’d never say that, but I wanted to get your attention.

Be careful that the characters don’t call each other by name all the time.  For some reason even experienced authors who know better do this frequently.  Maybe it helps keep track of characters or something.  But in reality, people seldom use each other’s names – usually only to get the person’s attention or when they’re angry. Remember your mother when you’d done something wrong, well there you go.  Most of the time she called you by a sibling’s name, right? 

Keep it short.  Most of us speak in incomplete sentences to get our ideas across and there’s a back and forth thing going on.  However, we do know people who open their mouth and go on and on and on . . . and (yawn) on.  You might even have one of them in your book.  This is where you present an illusion rather than the real thing.  Give that gabby character a few run-on sentences, have the other character try to get a word in edgewise, then have the point of view character think about how this character hogs the conversation.  That’s pretty much all it takes.  When the first character shows up again, provide the reader with a light reminder, maybe give that character an extra line or two more than the others in the scene.  Next thing you know when that character comes on scene readers will already know they’re tiresome gabbers.  We all know people like that and it will make them sympathize with your focal character.

Have characters give indirect answers.  Dialogue that is too direct is called on-the-nose and tends to be predictable and therefore boring. Character one asks character two if they are attending a meeting that night.  The obvious answer is yes or no, with perhaps an excuse. To make the dialogue indirect, have character two say something that leaves the question partly unanswered.  For instance, “What time is it?” or “Where’s it at?”  Or even, farther afield, “Is Becky going?”  Which actually isn’t so far afield because we’ve all done something like that, and that’s why this technique makes dialogue real.   

Try to provide two to three clever lines per scene –- cliches turned on their heels are good, Or   an unexpected insight. Or a reply that’s so far from what’s expected that the reader is jarred or amused.  It doesn’t have to be funny, although it can be, but it does have to be unexpected and off-the nose. The reason I suggest only two or three lines is this: If all the dialogue is clever, none of it is.  Save these lines for important moments in your scene, which the lines will make memorable. And give them to your protagonist, not the spunky sidekick.

I’m offering a Bootcamp course on Sparkling Dialogue in March (the 23rd actually) and if you’d like to know more about it, check out the course description and outline at bootcampfornovelists.com/cf-courses/c-outline-5b-sparkling-dialogue.html   It may be worth your mile.  In the meantime, if you want your dialogue to improve start listening closely to what people say and try to figure out what they actually mean.  It’s a fun way to spend time at the party and all those people you talk to will sing praise about how well you listen.  Odd, but then again, in today’s world, it’s a rare thing.


graceunderpressure said...

awesome blog! So glad Wendy Ely sent me here. Your link goes to the full course outline, not the quick outline with course fee. (just so ya know)

Connie Flynn said...

Thank you, Grace. Not quite sure who you are, but I'll have to check out the link. Sorry I'm so late responding. I'm just bouncing back from a bad cold and forgot that this was my Tuesday, until it was over. Glad you stopped by and thank Wendy for the referral.