Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Shut Yer Cake-hole!": Dealing With Dialogue

Let's cover dialogue today.

You'll hear this advice a lot (and I'm paraphrasing here): "Your dialogue should sound like real people talking."

Good advice, right?

Right.

Except when it's not.

See, when most folks here this, they immediately think: "My dialogue needs to sound exactly like people talking at Starbucks."

And instead of dialogue, they end up writing what amounts to a transcript.

Now why the hell would someone want to read a transcript?

Dialogue--dramatic dialogue--isn't a transcript of conversation. It simulates real conversation. It doesn't replicate it.

Let's go over that again:
Dramatic dialogue simulates real conversation. It doesn't replicate it.

"Simulate" is the operative word here.

So how do we do that? How do we simulate real conversation?

Here are three keys to keep in mind...

SAY YOU, SAY ME
People speak different depending on a variety of factors: place of origin, educational level, culture, etc. A literature professor at Oxford will speak very differently from an Appalachian miner. And that miner won't speak the same as a surfing enthusiast from Santa Monica, California. William F. Buckley sounds completely different from Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

Next time you're at the mall or sitting in Starbucks, listen to the conversations around you and take notes. Listen to the rhythms of speech and look for the following elements:
  • Fast or slow
  • Melodic or monotone
  • Complex vocabulary or lots of slang
  • Word choice
  • Favorite expressions
  • Complete sentences or fragmented sentences
Don't take that as an exhaustive list, but just a few things to get you started.

Once you hear those elements in speech, give them to the characters in your WIP. Have one person speak quickly but using a complex vocabulary. Or another speak slow and melodic but uses lots of slang. Mix and match.


SAY IT FORWARD
Dialogue should move the story forward.

Real conversations spends a lot of time chit-chatting. The weather. The kids and family. The game last night. The latest gossip. A lot of this before you actually get to the point of the conversation.

Drop the chit-chat.

Every spoken line needs to have a purpose in the story. Will it reveal character? Will it establish backstory? Will it heighten tension or conflict?

If it doesn't none of these things, cut it, cut it, cut it.

Get right to the meat of the conversation.


SAY IT, BUT DON'T REALLY SAY IT
Avoid "on the nose" dialogue.

I'm stealing this advice from the world of screenwriting.

"On the nose" dialogue is dialogue that says exactly what it means.

It's boring.

Avoid it as much as possible.

People will rarely say what they truly feel and truly mean. They'll hedge. They'll tiptoe. Beat around the bush. And if they think they've been found out, they'll vehemently deny it.

Let's look at this example:
LEIA: I love you.
HAN: I love you, too.
Ugh. Booooring.

Now compare it to the exchange we all know and adore:
LEIA: I love you.
HAN: I know.
Speaks volumes, doesn't it.

Or this one:
"Dana--How could you sleep with him?"
"You drove me away."
"I love you."
"No, you don't. You love your job more than me."
Blah blah blah-bitty blah.

Now try this:
"Was it worth it, Dana?"
"What do you care?"
"I do care."
"By coming home late every night? You're kidding. Tell me you're kidding."
"And Bill?"
"I felt like me again. The real me."
I'd keep reading. Wouldn't you?

So there you have it. My three keys to dramatic dialogue. Use them.

Or at the very least, try them out and see if they put a kick into your dialogue.

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