Wednesday, March 7, 2012

How to write good dialogue

Writer at work
Teaching dialogue is not easy, partly because we all talk without paying attention. To write dialogue you have to have paid attention to others talking.  But that's eavesdropping!  Okay, so listen without making any judgements, and definitely don't make any faces or any shocked sounds in response to what you hear.  This is scientific research; be objective about it.

  • So listen.  Note how two (or more) people talk without really responding directly to what each person is saying.  This is important. We rarely answer questions directly because we often don't want to give away anything important, and we have other things on our mind at the time and want to share or not share those things, so we tend to answer off topic.  Also, if we have a long term relationship with the person, we are going to talk in a sort of short hand, fragments, incomplete sentences. Some writers like to mimic this very tightly, others prefer to write in complete sentences while maintaining all other aspects of authentic speech.
"Honey, where did you put my keys?"
"You never gave me any keys."
"No. They were here on the table, where your hat is now. So where did you move my keys?"
"There weren't any keys when I put my hat there."

  • Note, the person responding to the question has not once answered the question.  The hat person is more worried about being blamed for losing the keys then helping the key person find them.

  • Dialogue also needs to be essential.  Don't waste time with dialogue that isn't offering something: characterization, rising action, relationship dynamics and such. 

So in the above situation, maybe the hat person does in fact have keys, but they are the keys to a new car, and hat person just wants to get key person to get frustrated enough to confront him, so he can then jangle them in key person's face, get that reaction he has been hoping for.

  • Add action, physical movement, reactions, etc., to create a greater sense of individuality and scene for the reader.
Modified example:
     Jill picked up the sweaty baseball cap and peered beneath it at the otherwise empty hall table.  She tipped the cap to look inside and then called over her shoulder loud enough to be heard in the next room, "Honey, where did you put my keys?"
     "You never gave me any keys," was the muffled reply.
     "Noooo," she stretched the word in mild irritation.  "They were here on the table."  She clenched the hat tightly and dropped it back down.  "Where you hat is now." Pivoting on one heel, she turned to the doorway.  "So where did you move my keys?"
     This time the response held the same note of irritation as her own, "There weren't any keys when I put my hat there."

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