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Winterbite 08-17-2009 07:58 PM

Character Dialogue
 

Originally Posted by Devon



Strictly Speaking:
Character Dialogue


Pick up any fiction book and thumb through it. What are you likely to see? Aside from paragraph after paragraph of narration, the second most recognizable part of a novel is the dialogue.

Like real people in the real world, characters who live together within the pages of a fictional world need to speak to one another. Through this, they come to life; they reveal information to the reader about themselves and their situations, and shed light on any number of backstories that might fuel their actions or shape their demeanors.

Thus, well-written dialogue is just as important to the overall structure of a story as narration is. Stilted or awkward speech, characters who speak “out of character,” or one who drones on in exposition can jar or bore a reader, which might make him put the book down in disgust.

But writing believable dialogue can be easy—if a writer is willing to put himself into his characters' metaphorical shoes, that is. How? More on this in a moment.

Let's start by looking at the various parts of dialogue.

Dialogue Elements
Conversation. Discourse. Banter. Chit-chat. However termed, dialogue can be defined as a spoken exchange between at least two people. Within the written word, it contains several elements, which work in conjunction to set a character's speech apart from narration or interior monologue.

These include:
  • Quotation marks—pieces of punctuation, either single or double, that signal a character's spoken word and define where narration ends and speech begins (though simple dashes are sometimes used).
  • Speechspoken word(s); something said, debated, discussed, or argued over. Without this, dialogue will not exist.
    Speech tags/Speaker attributions—verb/speaker combinations that signal who's speaking when. Help keep the reader on track during lengthy exchanges.
    Beats—bits of action or description interspersed throughout dialogue (a.k.a. action tags/description tags). Ground the reader to the scene and the characters to their world.
Not all four elements are needed every time, and some combinations work better than others. In a heated argument between two characters, for example, too many tags will obstruct the hard and fast flow of words. A casual conversation amongst friends, on the other hand, might drift, and therefore contain more tags.

The trick is, then, in learning how to skillfully craft the four elements together (or leave some out, as the case may be) to deliver the greatest impact in a scene structured around dialogue.

"Here is a Word About Tags," she said.
While quotation marks and character speech are familiar, to those still learning the craft of writing, speaker attributions and beats are sometimes not. New writers often apply these elements incorrectly within their work, and because speaker attributions and beats are important contributors to character dialogue, it's crucial to understand them.

Speaker attributions usually come in the form of a character's name (or an appropriate pronoun) and the verb said: “I don't care what you think,” John said, “I'm going to write this down.” In this bit, John said is the attribution involved.

Experts suggest that the verb “said” is the best one to use in a speech tag, due to its inherent invisibility; the reader's eye passes easily over it, allowing him to concentrate on the characters' speech. And this is true. Used the majority of the time, said makes the work look clean and read professionally.

But a writer shouldn't deny himself the use of other speech-related verbs—replied, answered, cried, yelled, or shouted, among others—at his disposal, either. Used in moderation, these verbs can clear up an ambiguous meaning or enhance a certain mood: “I don't care what you think,” John yelled, “I'm going to write this down!”

Switching from said to yelled has made John even more insistent that he write down whatever it is he needs to write down. So, we'll let him.

Now, what of adverbial speaker attributions?

“Adverbial what?” you say.

Adverbial speaker attributions are attributions modified by adverbs:

“I love you,” she said sweetly.
“And I love you,” he replied gushingly.
“Want to kiss?” she asked warmly.
“You know I do,” he said eagerly.

Many new writers pepper their dialogue with adverbial speaker attributions in the hope that they'll enhance the characters' spoken words. Unfortunately, it often accomplishes just the opposite; their overuse is not only unnecessary, but also annoying.

Though no rigid rule governs the use of adverbs within speaker attributions, many experts suggest to avoid using them, sometimes altogether. Their excessive use (like in our example) serves to “prop up” weak dialogue that could otherwise be reworded to stand on its own, and oftentimes brands writers as amateurs in the eyes of professionals.

But what if an adverb is needed? Then use it. Just as a writer shouldn't ignore the other speech-related verbs available, he shouldn't shove aside the use of a good adverb or two.

Beats are bits of action or description interspersed throughout dialogue. When new writers mistakenly use beats as speaker attributions, characters can get stuck “speaking” though any number of physically impossible speech tags:

“Hey, John,” Erma smiled, “you want to see my new puppy?”
“No,” John glowered, “I'm busy.”
Erma gaped, “I can't believe you're still trying to write that down.”
“Well, I am,” he sneered, “so quit your yapping.”
“That's not me, that's my new puppy,” she sulked.

No matter how hard they try, people can't smile, glower, gape, frown, sneer, or sulk words, and these non-speech related verbs sometimes incorrectly occupy various speaker attribution slots.

What to do? Reword them into beats, separate or connected to the speaker attribution, like so:

“Hey, John, you want to see my new puppy?” Erma asked, smiling.
“No.” John glowered. “I'm busy.”
Erma gaped. “I can't believe you're still trying to write that down.”
“Well, I am,” he said with a sneer, “so quit your yapping.”
“That's not me,” she replied, “that's my new puppy.” And she walked away, sulking.

Note the period after the speech, and before the end quote and the action tag, when a beat is used correctly: “No.” John glowered. “I'm busy.”

Through John's glowering, we understand he's miffed by Erma's inquiry, and with his action separate from his spoken words, rather than attached through the use of commas, he isn't trying to do the impossible—glower words.

Misused beats, adverbial speaker attributions, and attribution verbs other than “said” are collectively known as “said bookisms,” which detract from the characters' spoken word and are usually frowned upon by editors and publishers.

So what does all of this boil down to? A few simple guidelines:
  1. If the words alone convey the meaning in a clear and strong manner, use said.
  2. If the words might be ambiguous, another speech-related tag or an adverbial attribution could be used, though sparingly.
  3. Don't stick your characters with physically impossible speech tags. Use them to embellish character traits, and ground the characters/reader to the fictional word.
Now that the parts of dialogue have been mentioned and the more unfamiliar ones explained, how does a writer begin to construct believable character dialogue using these available elements?

Let's take a look.

Crafting Believable Dialogue
Dialogue surrounds us every day. We talk to the people we live with, work with, hang out with. It happens so naturally, many of us don't even think about it. Yet, some writers find writing dialogue more difficult than writing narration. Why is that?

One reason could be in the crucial nature of character dialogue. Characters come to life when they're able to assert their own personalities apart from the rest of the cast. The writer, by contrast, is only one person; he must think and speak for all of his characters, which can result in a host of awkward wording, stilted phrasing, and redundant personae.

But a writer who is willing to expand upon his skills can develop a good feel for crafting believable dialogue. Beyond practice and patience, it takes a bit of listening, observation, consideration, and rework.

Here are some techniques to try:

Listen. Learn to absorb the give and take of a conversation, the various accents and dialects, the cadence and inflections of words. “But I hear people talking around me all the time,” you say, “and still my characters' dialogue sounds funny!”

Hear people. Listen to people. Two different things.

Listening is active; it requires focus, a willingness to understand how things are said, and why they might be asked, shouted, cried out, or declared. Hearing, on the other hand, is passive; it only allows a general mishmash of sounds to flow over, instead of through, the mind, without much absorption.

So, true, you might hear people talking, but if you listen closely, you might begin to notice any number of verbal eccentricities that come with natural speech: People stammer, enunciate, emphasize. They hesitate with “ums,” “ers,” “ahs,” “ohs,” and “wells.” They cut their words short, or trail off in uncertainty. They also speak in contractions and fragments—something new writers forget—and even in fast-paced strings of words.

Thus, crafting believable dialogue begins with listening and applying these bits to character speech, which can effectively “show” the type of character presented. Someone from the backwoods, for example, is more likely to speak with odd contractions and colloquialisms (“That ain't nothin' but a coon, ya dimwit!”) than a college graduate with a Master's degree in mathematics.

But be careful. Like too much salt in a well-seasoned soup, too many verbal quirks can ruin a good flow of words. A heavy dialect can bog down character speech. A plethora of “okays,” “ums,” or “wells” can sound artificial. Excessive interruptions or trailings off can test the reader's patience, and make him wonder when the characters will get to the point.

If realism is the goal, balance needs to be the key, and a moderate peppering of what's heard in everyday speech can liven up a dialogue-based scene and bring a reader closer to the characters themselves.

Observe. Learn to absorb gestures—body language and facial expressions—as well as other miscellaneous sounds people might make during a conversation.

Sighs and moans, gasps and groans, squeals of delight and raspberries blown. A scowl, a smile, a fingering of hair; a shake of a head, hand motions in air. People bolt to their feet, and sag in their seats. They cringe, drink coffee, smoke pipes and sway, pet the dog, the cat, the hamster, the snake. People can do any number of things while speaking, and this is where beats come in.

Though not a part of the characters' actual speech, beats mixed into a scene containing dialogue will give the characters a place to be and things to do, grounding both them and the reader to the story. They remove the “floating heads” syndrome—i.e. characters who converse against a backdrop of nothingness—and can be a useful tool for “showing” subtle traits of the characters presented.

For the latter, consider our brief example from before:

“Hey, John, you want to see my new puppy?” Erma asked, smiling. (happiness)
“No.” John glowered. (irritation) “I'm busy.”
Erma gaped. (disbelief) “I can't believe you're still trying to write that down.”
“Well, I am,” he said with a sneer, (disrespect)“so quit your yapping.”
“That's not me,” she replied, “that's my new puppy.” And she walked away, sulking. (affronted)

With these beats, a reader can infer a few things about the preceding characters. Erma seems more pleasant than John, though easily offended, and John appears to be working hard and doesn't appreciate being interrupted with trivialities.

But in the same respect, Erma could be a flippant ditz whose lack of social awareness brings out the worst in John, or John could be an obsessive-compulsive writer whose narrow-minded goal to finish what's he's started keeps him from enjoying the smallest of pleasures, like a new puppy.

Furthering the scene with relevant actions will help clarify: Erma giggled and waggled her head; John growled, slammed down his pencil. With these, Erma's not the sharpest knife in the drawer and John can't stand it.

Choosing which beats to use and when (or if at all) is a skill a writer needs to learn to further lend a sense of realism to a dialogue-based scene. As mentioned previously, a hard and fast argument cluttered with beats will lose its impact, whereas a group conversation devoid of these “anchors” might become hazy and confusing for the reader.

Again, balance and moderation is key. Gestures or sounds placed where appropriate (such as in natural pauses) will enhance the scene and give the reader traits he can connect to the characters involved in the current verbal exchange.

Consider. Stiff, upright, formal. Causal, lax, sloppy. Enthusiastic, happy, intense. Characters can have any number of traits and working the aforementioned verbal and physical qualities into dialogue can be easy. Simply don your characters' shoes and consider who they are before attributing them with dialogue and beats that don't quite fit.

A perpetual “nervous Nellie” might wring her hands, pace, jitter, or chain-smoke. Her gaze might dart, and she might stammer her words: “I . . . I don't know what you mean by that, Bob. I really don't.” By contrast, a self-assured “flamboyant Phil” might exclaim things off the cuff with a jocular twist: “Bob, you're a subtle as a toilet brush jammed down the throat!” and smack his forehead, guffaw, or clap another character's shoulder.

Sticking either of these characters with speech or beats that don't reflect their traits might throw them “out of character.” Nellie shouting a confident comment during an episode of anxiety, or Phil fidgeting and stammering while chatting up comfortable friends might add a bit of a humorous twist, but it's more likely to chip away at character realism, particularly if the change in behavior is never explained, even subtly.

Age is another factor. The younger a character is, the less sophisticated the speech—usually. A small child, for example, is unlikely to say: “No, Mother, I do not want a turkey sandwich, I would much rather have a hot dog instead.” and even less likely to have profound thoughts and feelings past his own selfishness. He'd probably say: “Ew, no! Hot dog, Mommy. Hot dog.” without consideration to what might be healthier, the turkey or the frank.

So get to know your characters. Don their shoes, dig into their personalities, discover any odd traits or bizarre backgrounds they might possess that would influence what they say and how they say it. Tagging them with the correct type of speech and accompanying beats will not only add a sense of realism, but also draw your reader closer to those with whom you'd like them to relate.

Read and rework. All right. Spoken words have been listened to, gestures have been observed, characters have been considered, and a dialogue-based scene has been written. Now, read it over—aloud.

“What!” you cry. “Read it out loud? But I'll feel silly.”

Maybe. No one likes to be caught “talking to himself.” But remember, speech is meant to be listened to—through the ear. No matter how creative or complex a writer's mind might be, it can't catch everything, and sometimes it even inserts or rearranges words to its own liking. The mouth, on the other hand, slows down the flow of words, forces the mind to focus on emphases, inflections, and particular phrasings.

So let your characters speak through you. Listen to them. Give them a trueness to their speech. Allow them to:
  • Trail off: “I don't know. . . .”
  • Get cut off: “Hey! Don't you think that—”
  • Stammer: “Well . . . you know . . . um, about the dog. . . .”
  • Speak with contractions: “Don't you think you've done enough?”
  • Speak in fragments: “No. Yes. I mean, no. What?”
  • Utter interjections: “Ugh! What's that thing?”
  • Interrupt themselves: “I couldn't—wouldn't, I mean, who would?—ever consider doing that.”
. . . and punctuate properly. Speech that trails off or is stammered needs ellipsis points (. . .), whereas interrupted speech needs an emdash (—) to make it work.

What about beats?

This is where gestures come in.

“Gestures?” You roll your eyes. “You've got to be kidding.”

Honestly, no.

In writing a dialogue-based scene, it helps to echo the expressions and body movements of a character—physically. Frown when he frowns, smile when he smiles. Tap your fingers, scuff your feet. Tilt your head, lift your brow. Shrug your shoulders, pretend to sneeze or cough. Clear your throat . . . and the list goes on.

Right. As if you didn't feel silly enough reading the scene out loud, eh?

This imitation serves a purpose, though. It allows a writer to experience which actions will correspond well to a set of spoken words. Muttered speech doesn't often work with flailed arms and legs, and a joyous exclamation would rarely accompany a creased brow, unless followed by a bit of confusion over something gone awry.

So search for gestures that fit. A sneer toughens a snide remark. Gritted teeth tighten words of frustration. Stomped feet and pounded fists complement angry shouts, while clapped hands can suit anything from a babble, to praise, to a sarcastic utterance, depending on how fast or slow the character claps.

Let these beats (as well as speaker attributions) fall into natural pauses, where they will settle in and be readily accepted by the reader.

And then . . . re-read and rework. Lather, rinse, repeat. Do this as often as needed until the words are smooth and the actions are precise, and most importantly, feel for a rhythm and follow it. Let the scene come to life—through you.


Writing dialogue doesn't need to be a chore. For a writer willing to grasp the basics of crafting character speech, absorb and apply elements from the spoken world around him, and allow himself to become a conduit through which his characters take shape, it can be both fun and easy.

Very few things are as engaging as a well-written dialogue-based scene, and those that grab the reader, holding him fast to the storyline and to the characters themselves, are certainly valuable indeed.


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