We Need to Talk
“Writing is hard,” I complained.
“In what way?” Mom asked, her eyes on the flour she was dumping into a bowl.
“I don’t know what they should say!”
Dialogue has never, ever been my favorite. I like the pretty descriptions, the working things out in their head. It’s a weakness in my life and my writing. I have gotten advice from writing gurus on their mountains and looked for strong and weak dialogue in books I’ve read. Now I think I have it mostly figured out.
The best advice I ever got was that dialogue should either move the plot along, or it should tell you something about the character. Don’t waste words. Don’t waffle. Just get to the point. If you need to increase your word-count, for the love of all that’s good and holy, do a long complicated description instead, or add a new conversation instead of just packing on more words to ones you already have. The exception, of course, is if waffling or rambling is something that your character does, not something that you do. Hesitancy can be expressed by “um,” a word which you should otherwise strike from your dialogue. Yes, people say it. Some people say it a lot. My ninth grade history teacher once said “Um” 143 times in one class. No joke. But it doesn’t look pretty on a page.
“Hey, where’s that bumblebee powered teleportation device, Steve?”
“I can have it to you by tomorrow, sir.”
“Um, that’s not good enough. We’re being chased by zombie werewolves, Steve, I need it now!”
“But there are no bumblebees, sir.”
If Steve had said “Um,” that might have indicated nervousness. Since the other dude said it, it’s just stupid. A wasted word. Actually, two wasted words. “Hey” wasn’t necessary either. It’s messy writing.
While we’re on the subject of wasting words, one of the weird things I’ve noticed about writing dialogue is that it usually isn’t like how people say dialogue. One of the ‘what not to do’s’ made that pretty clear. A phone conversation in one book went something along the lines of;
“Who is this?”
“It’s Steve. Listen, I wanted to know if you were free tonight…”
“Um, I really shouldn’t. I have to be loyal to my boyfriend in Spain.”
And the guy proceeded to try to get in her pants. But the point is, that’s four or five lines of throw-away dialogue that is both tedious to read and isn’t important to the plot. It makes me want to bang my head on a wall, because it would have been so easy to condense it all into two lines.
“Hey, it’s Steve. Are you free tonight?”
“For you, no.”
The other way to go is the extreme opposite. No dialogue is just as bad as too much. My stories from seventh and eighth grade had almost no dialogue in them, before I reluctantly conceded to an English teacher that yes, sometimes quotation marks are necessary. This, among numerous other issues, is why most of my oldest writing is currently stuffed deep into a drawer so that I don’t have to look at it.
We have dialogue because it’s boring to internalize everything, and write everything from the inside of one person’s head. That’s why we need characters to communicate. Dialogue is a way of getting reactions from people other than the main character. It’s important, so don’t overdo it and don’t ignore it.
May 25, 2011 @ 6:05 pm
Dialogue isn’t how normal people talk. But one thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m at conventions, and around people who read about people talking more than they actually do it themselves, they speak like characters in books speak. I’ve realized that’s what a lot of my communication probelems with mundanes are – I expect them to talk like they’re in a book, like I do.
May 28, 2011 @ 5:57 am
Good article, Katie! Thanks.
Of course, all rules can be broken, but the ones I’ve heard are
–use about 20% dialog
–don’t start with a line of dialog (talking heads with no setting)
–make it do *both* things at once (move the plot forward and deepen understanding of characters)
Thanks for punctuating correctly. I seriously have MFA grad students who can’t put the commas and quotation marks in the right place. Here’s a primer if anyone needs one:
“A Manner of Speaking” by Harrison Howe is written in a way that all the dialog is in the form of questions, something that doesn’t dawn on the reader at first, but is crucial to the understanding of the story. Cool story (from Challenging Destiny, No 11, December 2000).
I like to skip dialog tags whenever I can.
At the first lecture at the first Alpha, the instructor handed out a paper with 100 words to use instead of said.
“Said is dead,” she said.
I pretty near died. As soon as she left, I asked the students to forgive me, ignore her and rip the paper in half.
May 29, 2011 @ 9:55 pm
“Said is dead,” decreed the instructor.”Please ignore that woman!” Diane implored the Alphans as soon as she’d left.”That was terrible advice,” DBK agreed.”I despise awkward dialogue tags,” opined Cassie, nodding in agreement.
May 29, 2011 @ 9:57 pm
HTML fail on my part. Awkward nonexistent line breaks are awkward and nonexistent. (I opined.)
June 6, 2011 @ 9:07 am
Great article, Katie! I myself have a tendency to use awkward dialogue, so this was very helpful. 🙂