Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Dreaded dialogue

Dialogue should bear information that moves the plot forward, and hopefully creates conflict, tension and suspense. It should be written with one character in mind and that character alone.
I'm sure I've said all this this before, but I need reminding every now and then.
Dialogue may explain what happened in the past; good dialogue conveys the emotions and thoughts of characters. Until a character speaks, their thoughts and emotions are portrayed either through the narrator’s eyes or those of another character. This allows a split to develop between a character's "perceived" personality and his "true" personality.

Realistic dialogue allows the reader to make up their own mind as to the kind of person they might be. Subconsciously we take note of how a character speaks, and when they speak. Are they terse and clipped, or verbose and boring? Do they push forward or hang back, preferring to be out of the limelight?
In real life, status usually shows in dialogue. We listen, and take a guess at someone's origins, education and how they view life. When reading we can make an educated guess at the appearance and expression of the speaker's words on the page. A person in authority, or someone used to subservience? Chief Executive of Shell, or Chairman of the Village Association?
The How To books tell us dialogue does not imitate real life – too uncomfortable since we are not prone to be articulate in everyday conversation. But they do insist that each character must have his or her own voice.
In short passages with only two speakers, dialogue does not need action tags or attributions. Action tags are rapidly becoming as irritating as attributions, and I have to curb myself from using too many. I especially hate - and I don't know if I'm alone in this - the modern habit of attributions such as - "she husked, he gritted, he bit out." Depending on my mood, they either make my blood pressure rise or they make me laugh.
I noticed these expressions first in books coming across the Atlantic but now they are appearing in books published here in the UK. "To husk" is to shred the outer covering from a nut or seed - it has nothing to do with husky and that word, oddly enough refers only to a breed of dog in my dictionary. But enough of my pet peeves...
A dialogue passage of any length requires some action to make it more interesting and keep track of the speakers. Action in this capacity can be made to serve as a descriptive element and is useful to both writer and reader. But limited the use, or they overrun the dialogue.
Dialect can be conveyed to the reader, but a long tract littered with apostrophes is unattractive and often unreadable. Accepted advice is to use the rhythm, turn the words around and throw in the odd colloquialism. Turning the words around works when doing a French accent, but it is impossible to get the intonation of a sentence down on paper, and many dialects use words that, translated, convey no dialect at all. It is difficult, but fun. Onward and upward. Perhaps my character will be upwardly mobile, and he will gradually lose that accent....


Caroline Storer said...

Great post Jen! (Bit late but I've just posted a comment on your "openings" blog which was excellent! Take care Caroline x

Jen Black said...

Great to have your input, Caroline. Creating those first lines (in the post before this one)was fun, but doing it in limbo is easy. The difficult bit is doing it for the story currently being written!

Anita Davison said...

Interesting post, Jen. Dialogue can be illuminating as far as showing character traits, but it can also be misleading. My character was a father and I was told he sounded casual about his daughter's welfare - that's what I intended, he was a disinterested parent! But perhaps I hadn't made that clear from the daughter's perspective. Back to the ms - Oh,and attributions are a minefield.