Wednesday, January 25, 2012

That's What I'm Talking About, He Said

By Deborah Sharp

I've been drafted to teach a class on dialogue next month, and I've been thinking that writing good dialogue is as much about what you don't do as about what you do. Sure, it's important to:

LISTEN to the way real people speak (but leave out all the boring uhms, ers, and repetition when you turn everyday speech into dialogue)

READ ALOUD your dialogue (but don't delude yourself that choosing labored tags like John roared or Mary screeched makes you sound more clever than using the perfectly adequate, and not nearly as distracting, word ''said.'')

BREAK UP long blocks of dialogue with action (but resist the urge to info dump by crafting a passage like this:

"I can't take this anymore.'' Jennifer crushed out her cigarette in the overflowing ashtray, even though she'd promised James she'd quit smoking two months before. She lit another, took a deep drag, and thought about all the times she'd begged her own mother to quit smoking, the mother who had died of cancer when Jennifer was still in high school. "I want out, James.'' )

MAKE SURE all your characters don't sound the same (but don't over-rely on tricks such as misspellings to denote dialect, verbal tics, or filthy words that are going to end up annoying readers by the end of Chapter 1.)

PACK your dialogue with emotion and power (but not by using adverbs to tell -- not show -- how your characters speak, Deborah said passionately.

I'll keep you posted about the dialogue class. It's Feb. 4 at Murder on the Beach mystery bookstore in southern Florida. The bookstore is sponsoring an annual series of classes called Author Academy, at $25 per student. It seems like a genius move by the store to bring in paying customers in this ever-evolving biz. But that's a topic for another blog post.

Writers, what's the best advice you ever received about dialogue? Readers, what puts you off about badly written dialogue? Who do you consider some of the strongest dialogue-writers in the business? If you've read/written a good column or post on dialogue, add the link to your comment so others can benefit.


Vicki Doudera said...

I keep in mind that dialogue needs to be purposeful. It can be funny, informative, character revealing, etc, but it has to have a purpose (unlike so much of our REAL conversations, right?)

Also, I study other writers' techniques whenever I'm reading. For instance, I was surprised to realize that Patricia Cornwall puts adverbs before the verb when writing dialogue, i.e., "She sweetly said." At least in the Scarpetta that I read, Ms. Cornwall does this ALOT.

"I find it disconcerting," Vicki said pointedly.

Lois Winston said...

One of the best pieces of dialogue advice I ever received was to let the characters' words speak for themselves. Instead of "telling" the reader how the character said something (like Vicki's 'sweetly said' example,) the reader should know that the words were said sweetly by the words spoken and the character's actions. That's the difference between "showing" and "telling," and a well-written novel will always "show", not "tell" the story.

Robin Allen said...

I, too, honed in on that adverb advice, which has been beaten into writers since the beginning of time. What I've realized, though, is that writers are the only ones who know we shouldn't use adverbs. Agents don't care. Editors don't care. And readers don't care. There are *a lot* of books that use adverbs all over the place, best-selling author Patricia Cornwall being just one.

For the record, I use adverbs once in a while. And I'm published.

Deborah Sharp said...

Hey, all... yep, Robin, I agree ... the occasional adverb is allowed. I think it becomes distracting when every line of dialogue includes how we as readers are supposed to interpret it, like we're feeble and need help.
Vicki: I like the ''purposeful'' advice. My first drafts ALWAYS have lots of non-purposeful dialogue that ends up getting cut. Like a lot of Southerners, my characters LOVE to talk! Lois: Show don't Tell should be inscribed on every writer's computer. It's such good advice, for everything from dialogue to plot.

Alan Orloff said...

"Sage advice," he said phantasmogorically.

Deborah Sharp said...

''If Alan ever uses an adverb again that I have to look up in the dictionary, I'm going to punch his lights out,'' Deborah threatened darkly ;-)