5 Tips On Dialogue, Part One

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EDIT: If you like this journal entry, check out The Sarcastic Guide to Writing ebook www.amazon.com/The-Sarcastic-G… for exclusive content on world-building, character, and dialogue!

1. Good dialogue implies more then what is being said. Dialogue is a tool for characterization, because if character is action, talking is a free action.  (Heh.) What is being said not always as important as how it's being said.  A character who is constantly sarcastic, or quiet in the face of fury, or downright serene and gleeful on a battlefield says a lot about their character.  Dialogue can convey this easily.  Some dialogue can be straight and to-the-point, like "Swerve left to avoid the deer!" but when used as characterization you should always consider the A point and B point of your dialogue.  Consider point A to be the direct information that serves the story and the plot.  Consider point B as revealing your character's emotions, state of mind, or feelings about a particular thing.  The way someone says "This tea is hot!" can convey whether they are optimists, pessimists, a ditz, or just messing with you.  If you have multiple characters, a good exercise is to "ask" each of them a question and write down how each of them would respond.  (If all of them are like "yeah" and do so with a cheeky wink, maybe you need to look into making them a tad different from each other.) Characters who talk about their feelings out loud, like "I'm so very angry right now" are totally missing dialogue's point as a subtle characterization tool.  Dialogue has to be realistic, and unless you're an English matron berating her charges, you're not going to be saying that line.  Think about what you say and do when you're angry, or sad, or happy.  Unless you're in a therapist's office, you're not going to be saying I-statements.  If a character is sad, we should be able to discern that from the dialogue and the contest clues surrounding it.  Think of all the deflection behind "Whatever ..." or "I'm fine!"  When you start looking at the implications of dialogue, emotion gets a lot easier to render.

2. Dialogue is concise realism. I see way, waaaaaay too many first five pages where the characters get up, do crap, and talk about crap.  Their conversation about English muffins over English muffins has nothing at all to do with their vampire-staking, and we discover no other characterization about them other than they like English muffins.  I froth at the mouth at this stuff, because it is usually a shameless plug for the author to live vicariously through a Mary Sue and wish that they could wake up in a wonderful house with a wonderful bed with superpowers, and get to talk to all their friends about how great it is!  The same goes for any mundane scene that involves talking about school, or , really, anything at all and missing that the entire point of dialogue is to characterize.  Too many people put in non-words, too, like "ums", and "uhs" and ellipses "..." ad nauseum because "that's how real people talk!"  Well, I got news for you: characters are not real people.  Stories are not real events.  They echo and reflect real people and real events, resonating with their readers for that reason, but they are not real. Dialogue should convey information, give us insight into the character's background and emotional landscape, and upon doing that, MOVE ON.  Anything else is bound to be infodumping.  Phonetic spelling of accents is thin ice: you better do your research and do it right.  Even Mark Twain and Brian Jacques's use of that trick is considered excessive by some people.

3. Vocabulary can define or derail character. Has it been a while since I bashed Inheritance?  It feels like it has.  So here we go.  Eragon doesn't talk like a farm boy.  None of Paolini's characters talk any differently from any of his other characters, whether they be dwarf, human, or dragon.  They all apparently attended the same grammar school (where reading the same thesaurus must've been required) and have the exact same cultural background (really, it's just painfully obvious they're all written by the same author.)  This bugs me, because not only do Texans speak differently from New Englanders, but Londoners don't speak like people from Norwich! Going fifty miles in any direction from where you are in the world almost guarantees a change in dialect and accent.  Education, culture, and environment all affect word choice.  If your character is a peasant, they speak like a peasant, not like a nobleman who took elocution lessons.  If you character is a gangsta thug fluent in ebonics, he doesn't talk like a Harvard Linguistics professor.  And if you suddenly make him start talking like that after page 50, I'm calling bullshit and hurling your book across the room.  Diction is a vital tool for the author, in prose as well as in dialogue.  I personally am one of those walking thesaurus people in real life, because I'm a writer: I read and write a lot.  That doesn't mean that my teenage boy character Kae would use "crepuscular" to describe a sunset just because I know what it means.  If your character is wordy and erudite, expect those who aren't to have a "Huh?" reaction.  If your character is speaking a language that isn't his primary one, unless he's been speaking it fluently for ten to twenty years, do not make him use contractions, colloquialisms (An example: "That's made of win!" is an Internet/gamer colloquialism), or turns of phrase unique to his second language.  Character's word choice is so very important to make them believable; think of the words and phrases they would use in every situation.  Going to a place of transition, like a coffee shop, bus stop, or airport and listening to how people talk is a good exercise for figuring out how different people say the same thing.

4. Dialogue requires context. If you haven't taken the time to establish why things are important to your character, you can have the best dialogue in the world and have it mean absolutely nothing.  I recently read (ahem) the prologue of a self-published fantasy novel that gave no context whatsoever for the opening.  It was intended to be a highly-charged senate debate, with the heads of two bitterly conflicting countries outmaneuvering each other. Unfortunately, both characters spoke with overtly erudite vocabularies and sounded exactly the same.  On top of this, I had no idea who my protagonist was, who I was supposed to sympathize with, and ultimately, why I should care that evil dragon guy was trying to get into the fox guy's library. (As a testament to how poorly this was done, I found myself sympathizing with the dragon's argument, only to discover on the next page that he was the Designated Villain.)  The pages flunked about every first 5 pages test in the book, but there was a lot of dialogue.  I think a lot of people tend to think that dialogue is a saving throw of sorts; that instead of the author telling you something, it's okay if a character does it instead.  (In dialogue, this particular trick is referred to as "As You Know, Bob".)  An infodump is an infodump, whether the author is doing it or forcing his characters to at gunpoint.  Dialogue can be its own context, but you have to build on it.  Give a character a line.  Any line.  Like, say, "I don't care."  Fairly innocuous, right?  By itself, this is a forgettable piece of dialogue, a downright throwaway.  But give it context, like, say, hurling a table at a wall, kicking a kitten, or sobbing hysterically, and it takes on a whole different meaning.  Often some of the best dialogue is the kind that says one thing while the character does something the exact opposite.  (An actions speak louder than words type thing, which gets back to Character is Action.)  Most people who can't provide context for their dialogue tend to have really crappy dialogue.  They can't show their character sad, so that their dialogue provides a window into their grief, so instead they just tell us by having the character say "Boo hoo.  I am so sad."

5 Cursing is allowed, just not excessively so. I think most cursing in books suffers from the Tethercat Principle  tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php… .  On page 300, your character drops the F-bomb.  Go back to page 300, and there he is, still dropping the F-bomb.  Having said that, I'm not that big a prude when it comes to harsh language.  (Lewis Black is my favorite comedian, and I named my dog after the Pikers in Snatch.)  Nonetheless, overuse of bad language is lazy writing.  If the only way you can convey that your character is irritated, upset, or angry is by cursing, you make them look stupid and extremely uneducated.  If you've ever held a conversation with someone who curses every ten seconds, it really does a number on your perception of their intelligence.  There has to be a reason for the cursing to be appropriate. (In Black's case, it's part of his frustrated character bit, and in Snatch's case, it improves the comedic, Sophisticated-As-Hell-crook backdrop of the movie.)  You also have to consider your audience.  I've gotten in trouble with my SCBWI group for using "hell" and "damn" in YA books!  Like the teenagers readings it hadn't heard a thousand times worse.  Having said all that about cursing, there's nothing like an under reaction to throw your reader out of the books.  If someone's leg gets blown off, and they're screaming "Oh, darn!": it ain't gonna happen. Most of the time, cursing should be held off for pinnacles of emotional reaction: not anger, but fury, not sadness, but total grief.  Otherwise, it's not as effective.  Cursing reveals the base, raw, reactionary part of humanity.  If you're doing it every five seconds, eventually the impact wears off.  In addition to your own discretion, use accordingly in adult novels; sparingly in YA.
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Snapsunset's avatar
The fifth paragraph made me happy. The part about having a conversation with someone who swears constantly reminded of one time with my younger sister. I don't think she was talking to me, but she swore every five seconds. I really couldn't view her as an intelligent person. To make it worse, she was probably just irritated, not furious.
AnatolLeon's avatar
It is funny to get this text told by the google translator voice, done this because I was eating while I wanted to read this... XD
Rasgonras's avatar
On point number three: Read any german literature that is considered classic.
Aazhie's avatar
A good thing for cursing in YA novels is having the cursing be an action, rather than a dialogue. You can describe words coming out of an injured character as vividly as possible, causing Cherubs to drop dead from the sky at the atrocious language. Unless your reader is a delicate flower, they can come up with their own "insert F-bomb here"s as much as they can tolerate without you getting into trouble over age appropriateness. Someone's shit is another man's poop and vice versa.
...Which is giving me awful imagery on its own. Sorry for that 8D
StephanKrosecz's avatar
I've definitely taken some of this to heart. Most recently #1.

I have a character that becomes immortal in my comic. In my original draft I had a character explain in detail why he wishes it had happened 10 years earlier. It was about a page long. And in my new draft I boiled it all down to one semi-serious joke. I feel it's a sign I'm definitely learning, and somewhat through reading these posts.

So yeah, anyway, thanks! I hope you keep these up, they'd be an enjoyable read, even if I weren't currently writing.
StormofThunder's avatar
"Nonetheless, overuse of bad language is lazy writing. If the only way you can convey that your character is irritated, upset, or angry is by cursing, you make them look stupid and extremely uneducated."

I remember when I drew some shitty scrap chapters with curses every single line.

And it was exactly the point to show how much of an uneducated idiot the character was.

...Didn't make it any better, though.
RedVioletPanda's avatar
I'm going to be frank on this: writing dialogue is a tricky, tricky process from every place I've read about it. The thing is it's difficult to write dialogue, even to really convey two different characters.
I actually find it a tad easier to convey character emotions in comics, and with a few comic book writers it's actually conveyed pretty good, like in the case of the Hooded One in Bone or the way Delirium speaks in Sandman. With novels, you have a fixed format, and the characters have to define by what's in their dialogue, likewise, a character who is a noble is going to sound different than a peasant; likewise goes for an alien character who knows little English is going to sound differently than the elfin wanderer who has spent a lot of time with humans who speak English. Of course, since I write mainly non-human characters, I have to put myself into their situation, and try to think not just what they would say, but how they would say it. On the subject of fantasy writing, I once read an essay by some sci-fi author who was trying to point out that all fantasy is elitist because all of it's main characters are either nobles or kings, but the factor to that (other than he hasn't read a lot of fantasy), is that the most probable reason why you see a lot of noble-born characters in some fantasy novels is probably due to how you will be depicting dialogue without frustrating the reader. Most readers are used to reading dialogue without trying to stumble over dialogue like "th' " or "nah" or something like out of "Smoky the Cow Horse". A peasant in The Middle Ages is not going to speak in formal language. That's also another thing I'll like to point out is informal and formal language in other languages, it's a very interesting subject to dwell upon.
androidgirl's avatar
I am a tad bit confused about the cursing bit. What if your character IS the type to curse so casually? There's no emotional charge behind it (and it doesn't matter if it lowers the readers' perception of his intelligence because he's a straight C student). He just does it because his friends are the same way and most of the other characters don't lace their speech with bad words. Will swearing still lose its impact if it comes from the not-sweary characters? Will swearing lose its impact if, say, Mr. Potty Mouth's leg gets blown off and he starts yelling strings of curse words rather than just casually drop one or two?
Droemar's avatar
If your character is the type to curse casually, that's fine. As long as it's an adult book. The cursing rule is more about your audience than about your character. Excessive swearing has it's place; just don't assume it's in high literature or children's libraries.
Characters who curse less get more impact when they do curse. Look up Precision F-Strike on TvTropes.
Lit-Twitter's avatar
Chirp, it's been twittered.

English muffins D:
Furrama's avatar
I sense you are a realist instead of an idealist.
Keaze's avatar
Furrama's avatar
Depends. If the story or characters in question are built up to be akin to some moral or extra-fantastic standard and they keep to that I don't see a problem. But if you as a writer ground your story or an aspect of your story in realism then everything must follow the logic you have created.
Keaze's avatar
Of course. Consistency is neccessary.
Furrama's avatar
Keaze's avatar
Now if only people didn't combine it with mistakes and lack of knowledge and called it a style.
Furrama's avatar
Well, that's a whole other can of beans isn't it? Oh my, I could get all philosophical on statements like that.
Keaze's avatar
Droemar's avatar
That obvious, huh?
I've got a question: in the first tip you said that dialogue must be realistic, but then, in the second tip, you said that the characters aren't real (does that means that they must not talk realistic?). So then, which is your limit of reality? I mean, when do you start and finnish being realistic, or how much reality should a story have?
Droemar's avatar
As much reality as it takes to resonate with your reader. It's a fine line, but a distinct one: it's way different to hear a dramatic character in a movie speak versus watching a vapid blonde on a reality show talk about her nails.
Characters not talking real kind of goes hand in hand with characters themselves not being real.
mirime-duinram's avatar
Noooo, not TV Tropes!

My biggest dialogue pet peeve is writing out accents. First of all, I'm a linguistics nerd who likes fantasy, so in all likelihood the character *isn't* speaking like that at all, since they're not speaking English! And second, it's harder to read and really irritating. One of my friends does that and the only reason I don't throw her manuscript across the room when I encounter it is because it's on my laptop.
Dilong-paradoxus's avatar
Just because of you I had to go to TVtropes and look around for fourty-five minutes. Thanks.

:D
Droemar's avatar
You should go back again. And check out ... oh, I don't know ... Reed Richards Is Useless.
C'mon. You know you want to.
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