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The Trouble with Dialogue – Part 3

July 28, 2010

Dialogue is a common pitfall for many writers.

They may have well rounded characters with an engaging plot, an environment masterfully described … but then the characters open their mouths, leaving readers alienated through poor phrasing and unrealistic dialogue.

This weeks post looks at authentic dialogue and tips on listening in or hearing your characters voices. Its part of a four piece article on writing dialogue, where hints and tips drawn from personal experience and from notes taken in workshops and writing seminars will be shared.

Dialogue advances the storylines, fleshing out and defining characters while providing the reader a break from straight exposition.  However, just as realistic dialogue is one of the most powerful tools at a writer’s disposal, nothing pulls the audience out of a story faster than bad dialogue.

The trouble with writing dialogue is that it runs the risk of:

  • becoming a soapboxfor the authors favourite or current passion
  • being too formal or proper in order to be grammatically correct
  • is mismatched to the character and or environment
  • sounds rehearsed and stilted.

Hearing the Voices

Admitting to hearing voices or seeing flashes of scenes causes more than a little discomfort for many writers. Like visitations from shades of past lives or ghosts, being contacted, yelled at, whined to or having an overloaded dialogue dump is something that most of us keep to ourselves.  However, I happen to know writers whose main characters talk to them whilst they shower, drive kids to school or when cooking. There are certain regular Fiction Friday writers whose characters sit in the WA greenroom awaiting their turn in the spotlight. As much as I hate to give Stephanie Meyers and the Twilight series any more space that it deserves, she claims that Edward came to her as a fully developed character; as I am certain many other famous writers could attest to.

The problem may not be the lack of dialogue – but one of too many people talking at once. Like the constant babble at a huge party, trying to focus on one conversation might be difficult; especially if the writer has their own agenda or soapbox they wish to push.

Shut up and Listen

Stilted dialogue is often born from a writers frustration to communicate a message. Our stories carry lessons, messages and themes to readers, where characters and settings have the ability to comment on key issues in a writers personal life. If a writer is confident with their characters background story and research, then there needs to be a amount of trust when sitting down to write the conversation and allow it to flow.

Writing is a partnership. A characters story requires the crafter to research, ponder up and explore a wide range of aspects about the environment, culture and motivations in order to move them along in the plot. Many writers, finding themselves stumbling at a vital point in a scene will, at least in their heads, ask key questions about the plot. Some ask characters directly.  If you want to hear what the character has to say, you need to shut up. Listen. Then write what you have heard; even if it makes no sense to your logical mind at that specific point.

Some writers like to hold or have small items which represent parts of a characters personality or interests when they are writing key scenes and dialogue.  Certainly by concentrating on the character, rather than being hung up with specifics or their own inner ‘chatter’, then the words will begin to flow.

Turf the hang ups on being “proper”

Whilst some writers get hung up on grammatical ‘correctness’ and carry it over into writing dialogue, a key point to remember when writing real life dialogue, is not to copy it in its entirety. If you were to tape record a normal conversation, it would be full of lengthy spaces, half said words and muffled sentences. There is a fine balance between an exchange that sounds far too formal or strained and one that is downright boring or pointless. Written speech needs to  sound natural to the spirit of your character, rather than their reality.

Finding the characters voice

Some factors to consider when finding each character’s “voice”, is to look at the things which would reflect on their personality, such as:

  • The timeframe the story is set in. ( futuristic, historical, alternate history?)
  • The sort of educational background (or if its important socially – the schools or collages they attended?)
  • Where are they from geographically ( particularly in the UK and parts of the US, a persons manner of speech is dramatically different to another person who live less than 50 – kms away)
  • How old are they?
  • What do they do for a living?
  • What sorts of hobbies or interests they may have (many pastimes have a specific language or phraseology undertaken by their fans)

If a reader or audience member feels that they can identify with a character, they are willing to follow that character on their journey. Overly formal or artificial-sounding dialogue, unfortunately, often creates the opposite effect, alienating the audience and leaving them unable to sympathise or empathise. So, do your research, plot your story, but trust in your characters to reveal themselves, their personalities and secrets by listening.

Part One can be found here.  Part Two can be found here.

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Annie Evett wishes you all a productive writing week and that the voices in your head lead you to write great conversations.. Follow Annie’s shameless self promotions here on Twitter  or here on Audio Boo and start your escape into her world here
One Comment
  1. July 28, 2010 5:26 am

    That’s something I don’t do enough. Shut up and listen.

    Thanks for the post, Annie.

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