Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What Did You Say?

As I had mentioned in my comment on Fiona Lowe’s guest blog on Saturday, I prefer lots of interaction between the characters in the stories I both read and write. Any author who writes great dialogue that can draw me into the story and make me laugh or cry will have my attention, admiration, and loyalty.

Dialogue, like any other component of a story, has a purpose or purposes. From my reading on the subject, we should plan our character’s conversations to cover one or more of the points below:

  1. Characterization When a character speaks, we should get an idea who this person is, how she thinks, what’s important to her, and what’s on her mind. Dialogue should make the character come alive.Look at the following example. It comes from the song, Sixteen Tons. I know it’s not from a novel, but it’s what sparked my idea for this blog. The character in the song says,

    “If you see me comin', better step aside
    A lotta men didn't, a lotta men died
    One fist of iron, the other of steel
    If the right one don't a-get you
    Then the left one will.”
    By Tennessee Ernie Ford

    We know exactly what kind of person this man is just by what he’s said. We know to stay clear of him and can guess that his life hasn’t been tranquil.

  2. Tone and Mood Dialogue can convey the mood of the scene. For instance, the above dialogue creates a mood of menace. The tone of the scene can be established by not only what the characters say to each other but how they speak to each other.The following conversation between Princess Georgia Sheraton and an old acquaintance, Donovan Mackie III, takes place in the opening scene from my unfinished novel, Boyfriend in a Box.

    “Cut the formal crap, Princess. We’ve known each other too long for that.”

    “That’s Your Highness to you, Donny.”

    Donovan is obviously upset with the princess, and she tries to put him in his place.

  3. Plot Advancement Dialogue must also move the plot forward in some way, whether it’s providing the reader with important information, or moving the story toward the next event.

    “Just what do you think you’re planning?”

    Georgia gave a little jump. Had he read her mind? Had he somehow gotten wind of her scheme? “Planning? What do you mean, what am I planning?”

    He snorted. “Don’t act the innocent with me. You never were a very good liar.” He narrowed his hazel eyes. “The surprise welcome back party to Eastwood.”

    Georgia just stopped herself from saying, “Oh that.” Instead she said, “Who told you?”

    “Who else?”

    “My brother.” She shook her head. “David never could keep his big mouth shut.”

    From their dialogue, the reader learns that Donovan thinks he knows what Georgia has planned, but from her response and her internal dialogue, we know she has something else planned. We need to keep reading to discover what the princess is up to. We are also introduced to another character.
Any dialogue included in a story should have a purpose. If it doesn’t fulfill any of the three conditions above, the author should re-evaluate the conversation to determine if it should be eliminated or changed. As Jeffrey Hatcher said in The Art & Craft of Playwriting, “Good dialogue tells the audience what it needs to know – the time period, background, setting and style of a play [or in our case, a novel] – but above all, good dialogue creates an event, changes the dynamic of the plot, and alters the characters’ lives.” (1996)

Also, we as authors should remember that real life dialogue is not the same as story dialogue. We need to make it sound like real dialogue, only the extraneous words have been eliminated.

Check out the following website for 12 exercises for improving dialogue: www.poewar.com/12-exercises-for-improving-dialogue/

Do you enjoy reading dialogue as well? What is your opinion about internal dialogue? How much is too much?


Karen said...

Good morning Suse,
I gravitate towards novels with lots of dialogue, strong characters and plenty of action.

I love to write dialogue. Its the filling in around it that's the problem. I am definitely going to venture over to the site you listed and do the exercises.

Captain Hook said...

I'm the same. I can write dialogue all day long, but the stuffing that goes in the turkey (narration), I stink.

Since this is a romance site, if I can I'd like to give my friend Chelle a little plug. She has her first romance novel coming out in October. You can find out more at her blog http://chellehicks.blogspot.com/

Suse said...

Sorry everyone, about the glitch with the numbering in the blog. Not sure what I can do to fix it.

Suse said...

Hi Karen,

I find I do the same with writing lots of dialogue. But when I read through what I've written the previous day, I keep a list of the 5 senses beside me, and I try to incorporate some of them before I move on to the current day's writing. Have fun with the exercises.

Suse said...

Hi Captain Hook, I'm not very good at narration either. It takes more work for me to write that part of the story. I think part of the reason is because I don't like to read a lot of narration, so I avoid it when I'm writing. As I mentioned with Karen, I do try to use the 5 senses when I'm going through what I've written, and I try to picture what the characters are doing and thinking about what would be important for the reader to know in order to be more involved with my story.

Good luck to your friend Chelle. She must be excited.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Suse,
Writing dialogue seems to the fun part for a lot of writers, including me. Dialogue is where I get to inject humour and emotion. One of the things I try to do with my dialogue (hopefully) is to make readers laugh and then make them cry. A writer who can do that to me earns my respect.

Sometimes what our characters don't say is important. "Beats" within the dialogue, those little bits of narrative that tell the reader what the character is doing while he is speaking, can show emotion, and sometimes they indicate his feelings are the opposite to what he says in dialogue. A clenched jaw or fist might show anger that a character is trying to hide. Drumming a finger against a chair or tapping a foot shows impatience or nervousness in a character who wants to reassure others with his words.

When a writer fails to engage me with their dialogue, I usually can't finish the book. Bottom line for me is believable, interesting dialogue that hooks me into the story and makes me care about the characters.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse, great post.

For the most part,the judges who score my contest entries give me high marks for dialogue.

However, in the contest entry that didn't final in this last contest, one of the judges said my dialogue didn't move the story along so I'll have to revisit the entry and watch out for that.

But on the whole, I'm blessed with a knack for interesting, dialogue.

Which is good because then I can concentrate on my pacing (a biggie) and the other parts of writing that give me problems. :)

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Suse - I've tried to fix the 'glitch' in your post. However, regardless of what I do, I can't get it to number! I see numbers on the draft but the published version always changes a number to a 'snowflake'. I've tried different fonts, and I've confirmed with other posts I've blogged with ordered lists and it's always the same.

Oh - and sorry if your post looks a mite different. It kind of moved around with the ordered lists thing.

Anita Mae Draper said...

I went to the link you recommended, Suse, and it's very useful. What a fantastic resource. Thanks.

If you wonder why I'm back... I'm procrastinating...

I love using internal dialogue to show what my characters are thinking. It's much better than having them talk to themselves. (Which is quite normal for me but sane people don't seem to like it.)

How much is too much? When it goes beyond the mirror of real life.

Janet said...

Great post, Suse (I'm off to re-read some of my dialogue and check for those three purposes - yikes). And a great link. Thanks.

I loved the tease you gave of your unfinished novel. Will we see more - because the little snippet has intrigued me (great dialogue).

And don't worry about the bullet issue - I tried to post my Serpents and Apparatus with Rung post as a bullet. Yah, that didn't work. Perhaps we all need to have a blog intervention :)


Suse said...

Hey Jana, I think there must be two types of people in the world - those who like dialogue and those who don't (yeah, hard to imagine). However, my coworker Kim can get so excited about the description of the scene, yet say nothing about the interaction between the characters, whether it's their dialogue or their actions. Maybe those who like the interactions & dialogue, like novels that are character driven more than those that are plot driven. Just wondering.

What I like about your writing is the humour you interject with the characters' dialogue as well as the situations they find themselves in. Your writing has made me laugh and cry. And you do write characters that I care about, so you have my admiration.

Suse said...

Hi Anita, I haven't had the opportunity to read your writing yet, but I would love to. It sounds like you've got the dialogue down. One less thing to worry about. Yeah, the pacing can be tough - I have a feeling that my stories get sluggish in the middle and it takes a lot to get the story going again. Too many things to think about.

Thanks for fixing my number glitch. I'm okay with there not being any numbers. Snowflakes are fine as long as they're in a blog and not outside my window.

I like reading internal dialogue and I like writing it as well. I have been told that I have too much though, so I need to work on balancing that better.

Suse said...

Hey Janet, I don't think that dialogue has to do all three things at once, but it should definitely have some purpose. I think the toughest thing for me is to make sure that each of my characters has his/her own voice and not sound like each other.

"Boyfriend in a Box" was a novel I started a couple of years ago, but abandoned for some reason or another - probably not enough conflict. But now that I've opened that file again, I might plug away on it. I really like the title and the reason for it, so...