Category Archives: Dialogue

Speaking in Code: a closer look at dialogue from a Steampunk writer’s pespective

This blog post has been inspired by a conversation I had at GenreCon with Diane Demetre, the Gold Coast Romance author of Dancing Queen.

There are lots of different ways of understanding dialogue, because there are as many types of dialogue as there are types of people. Understanding how a conversation might change in different circumstances is an important part of understanding how to write dialogue.The conversation between new acquaintances is going to be very different to an exchange between old friends, because old friends develop a ‘code’ without realising it.

For Example:

Acquaintances:

“Isn’t it hot today? The heat is making me quite thirsty.”

“I’m thirsty too. Do you want to stop and share a pot of tea?”

“Yes, please. That would be lovely.”

Old Friends:

“I’m parched today.”

“Cuppa tea?”

“Ta!”

In this exchange, exactly the same information is being imparted, but the friends are comfortable enough with each other that they no longer need to be socially polite and formal. The bonds of trust and affection are already in place, and familiarity with each other means they have a good idea of what the other means even with one word sentences.

This holds true even in a more formal era like the Victorian era. This is because friends and families develop their own coded languages. This isn’t a conscious effort to hide secret meanings in their conversations, but something that flows naturally from things like shared jokes and experiences. People are called by nicknames; common exchanges (like requests for a cuppa) end up shortened; certain words will have private meanings.  Even with the best will in the world and severely formal social rituals, people develop these conversational codes.

Artists are...

At the panel on Banter at GenreCon, one of the points discussed was what isn’t said is often just as important as what is said in a conversation. This can be an important indicator of what concerns are central to a character. But what isn’t said can also be due to this conversational shorthand used between friends and family. You have to take care to indicate these differences of intent when writing dialogue. This is why writing dialogue is both a challenge and exciting.

In a Steampunk narrative, it can’t be assumed the reader will understand the ‘code’ if you make it too technical or complicated. Don’t be tempted to write gobble-de-gook scientific terms when describing some gadget or process, because that may bore or confuse your audience. Keep jargon to a minimum, and make sure that clarity doesn’t suffer on behalf of characterisation.

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Filed under Characterization, Dialogue, Steampunk, writing, Writing Style

Character to Character Interaction: Dialogue and Body Language

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 You have your setting. You have your plot. You have your characters…

Now what?

Now you have to let them interact. The most obvious interactions are character to character, but all three have to mix to create the conflict and resolution of your narrative.

Character to Character Interaction: Dialogue and body language

The most obvious of character to character interactions is dialogue. The biggest problem with dialogue is that – in real life – a great deal of our communication is unspoken, because human beings have a sophisticated system of displaying emotions and complicates this with gestures and body posture and other nonverbal cues. This is hard to translate onto the page, and only partially because we don’t really notice a lot of this communication on a conscious level.

There are five main functions of nonverbal communication in human beings:

  • To express complex emotions
  • To express information about events and attitudes
  • For emphasis during speech
  • Presentation of personality
  • Social rituals

For example, when most people say ‘hello’, they also do an eyebrow flash, where they rapidly raise their eyebrows and drop them again. You don’t notice when you doing it, and you generally don’t notice the other person doing it (but I’m predicting you will now notice it for the next day or so). It is when someone doesn’t do the eyebrow flash that you notice something awry. You sense that they may be aggressive or disinterested. Now, how do you convey that gesture – or the lack of it – onto the page?

As well, so much of a conversation is conveyed by grunts and sounds. Most of us know about ‘hmmm’, ‘um’ and ‘er’, but there a dozens of more sounds in a normal conversation, ‘duh’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘gah’, ‘tsk’, yawning, gasping, sighing, moaning, hissing through your teeth, and I could go on and on. How much of this do you include in your text? And if you added in all the incomplete sentences that people make, your dialogue would end up too patching and boring to follow.

The proximity of communicating characters is important. If two people conversing are close enough to touch, this sends a different message than if they were on the opposite sides of a table, and again if they were on the opposite sides of the room! Their positions and postures might give you a bigger hint as to what is happening. If they are nose to nose and looking deep into each other eyes, with relaxed postures and caressing gestures being exchanged, you can make the assumption they are in love (or plotting murder).

This is a lot of information to convey in your narrative. You have to pick those aspects that convey the clearest picture of what is happening, as well as design your dialogue to sound like speech without actually mimicking real speech patterns. Look at the image provided, showing a very complex interaction between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. As an exercise: how would you convey that information just by text?

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Influences

Writer's Clock

I have a long list of people who have influenced my writing style. My very first major influence was Elyne Mitchell, who wrote the Silver Brumby series. I loved her purple prose with a passion. (Try saying that fast without spitting. And let me just say here … at no point did I suspect Thowra was a palomino, since he was supposed to disappear in snow. To me, Arrow was a palomino, and Thowra was a milk-white grey.) My very first attempt at writing a novel was a Silver Brumby fan fiction; though no one called it fan fiction back then, called Allinta, the Flame. Allinta was copper-coloured mare with a golden mane and tail, and all her adventures were pale echoes of events in The Silver Brumby series. My writing style was florid, without the authentic touch that Mitchell brought to her work. She knew the Snowy Mountains and I most certainly did not.

I was just a pre-teen when I wrote Allinta, the Flame. As I grew older, into my mid-teens, I lost interest in finishing Allinta’s adventures. I had become a huge fan of Star Wars, and now I was writing excruciatingly bad Space Opera. I suspect my main character was a Mary Sue, and I base this suspicion on the fact that my two male protagonists were physically based on my two crushes at the time: Leif Garrett and Ike Eisenmann. I managed to finish this story, and – as I recall – it did show some actual flashes of originality. But it was still terrible, as I had only a vague idea of what it took to write a novel. It was a series of adventures with no real central theme to link them together.

During the time I was studying zoology at university, I found less time to write. I did attempt another Fantasy, thanks to a sudden passion for The Sword of Shannara. Alas, I spent more time studying than writing, and that story faltered in its early stages. I wrote a little poetry and the less said about that the better. I graduated with a Bachelor in Science. I got a job completely unrelated to my degree. I got married to the wrong fellow.

Then I reread some of my juvenilia. Oh dear. It was obvious to me that my talents didn’t lie with literature, and for over ten years I did other things. I took drawing lessons. I even did a diploma in Art & Design. Art tried to fill in the hole left by writing. Of course, it couldn’t.

I had a baby. I got divorced. I thought that my social life was over, at over thirty with an infant and a whole lot of baggage. I was wrong. I met the right man. I remarried. I had another baby. And even while she was a sweet little bundle of cuddles, my muse was whispering in my ear. “Write down these feelings. We can use them.” My second husband is an enabler. When I mentioned I was drawn to try writing again, he encouraged me. I joined an online writing group. I did a TAFE course in short story writing. Then I took the plunge, and decided to do a second degree, this time in writing, with his full support.

I had spent a long time having nightmarish dreams about being lost on a bus. The minute I started my degree, those dreams disappeared. I had found my way at last.

Catbus bus

Now my life is submerged in writing, and I am content. I have found my own voice, my own style, and even if I am never published as a novelist, I feel a part of the writing community. It was at this point I decided to start this blog, and give back to the community that supports me. As well, I do volunteer work related to writing, such as judging the Australian Aurealis Awards, helping out at writing conventions, and giving seminars on the Steampunk genre. I run Steampunk Sunday, Queensland Australia on Facebook. I’m a tadpole in a very big pond, but I’m still swimming.

These days, my major influences for Fiction are Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, Angela Slatter and a score of other writers. My Science writing is heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov. I’d love to write like Terry Pratchett, but I don’t have his genius for humour. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are. That is why I did the Writing Experiment online, to take a risk and push my envelope. There is always something new to learn.

Isn’t it wonderful?

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Listening for Dialogue

Earworm image

The spoken word is very different to the written word, even when writing dialogue. Generally, we human beings tend to only hear what we want to hear, and tune out the rest. If you listen very carefully to speech, you will hear the ‘um’ and ‘ah’ of uncertainty, the uncompleted sentences, and fragments of words, that make up daily dialogue. Written dialogue would be painful to read if it mimicked real speech. In real life, we communicate with more than just words.

The dialogue on the page has to make sense without the unspoken methods we use to convey meaning, like vocal emphasis, facial emotions and body language. I ‘talk’ with my hands, and miss the ability to gesture when I am writing. It is my non-vocal crutch to communication. It means that – when writing – I have to concentrate on giving my characters something to do while they are speaking. If I don’t, they are just talking at each other, which hardly ever happens in real life.

Think about it. Even if you are sitting across from a companion having a private chat, you are likely to be drinking a cuppa, or doodling on a piece of paper, fidgeting with a paperclip or some such item, or twiddling you thumbs. No real person just sits (or stands) and speaks. Give your characters something to do, or you dialogue will feel stilted and strained.

Make sure your character don’t all speak alike, but don’t be tempted to get carried away with verbal ‘ticks’ like dialect. Maybe one of you characters can speak ‘proper’ English, and another uses slang. This is an excellent way of making sure your characters don’t all sound  the same. However, don’t use so much slang it dates your work (unless that is what you are aiming for).

I always spend some time learning to ‘hear’ my characters voices, as this helps me with my dialogue. It helps me give them their distinctive speech patterns. Sometimes I pick actors to ‘voice’ my characters, to assist in this strategy; this doesn’t work so well if you only watch shows and movies from one country, or that use the mid-Atlantic accent favoured by Hollywood.

The best way to assess dialogue is to read your work aloud. Then you can pick out what isn’t working almost immediately. You will be quick to realise when a sentence sounds like a confusing jumble. You don’t have to read aloud in front of anyone, but if you can get a fellow writer to help you at this point, their input can be invaluable.

Speech is what separates us from most of the other animals. Written dialogue is what separates the writer from the Muggles.

 

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