Tag Archives: dialogue

A Quick Observation on Dialogue

One of my best university tutors always told me to treat the setting like another character, and give the setting its own dialogue. There is more than one way to do this.

If your characters are talking, give them something to do, in the appropriate setting. Two family members are discussing a third member? Have them making dinner in the kitchen in the family home … and the setting and dialogue will act together like musical instruments … in harmony.

Think about contrasting the setting and the dialogue; this creates tension. People talking about saving the environment, while sitting in the middle of a big city and eating fast food, sends a very different message to a clutch of tired, wet people chatting while standing knee deep in an oil spill, trying to save dying birds. How would the dialogue change between these two settings?

In a fantasy setting … does it grate on your ‘ears’ if people talk in a modern manner. Why? Or why not?

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Dialogue Insights

 

Good dialogue comes down to six factors:

1. First and foremost, it advances the plot. Indeed … I know this goes without saying, but if I didn’t mention it I would be letting the team down.

2. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. However, when it comes to characterization, dialogue is one of the best methods for adding depth to a character. How they say what they mean is just as important as what they are saying.

3. It should seem natural, without actually being natural. Real conversation is full of ums, ers, and broken sentences. Unless you are writing ‘slice of life’, written dialoque should skip ninety percent of this ‘filler’ waffle.

4. Make it snappy and witty. Memorable. Channel Oscar Wilde or Terry Pratchett. Don’t bore your readers.

5. Dialogue should do more than just be about talking heads. It should also be adding to the underlying theme of your narrative. What are the underlying implications of your dialogue?

6. Alice might think a book without conversations is dull, but remember that your narrative should be more than just dialogue. If you want to have a masterclass, read Isaac Asimov to see how a dialogue can move a story along, and still be full of action.

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Filed under Dialogue, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, writing, Writing Style

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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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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