Sunday, March 14, 2010


Heavens, has it been a year since I last posted? Bad editor, no biscuit.

Dialogue is tricky for some people to write, and you need to approach it with as much attention to craft as you do any other aspect of fiction.

It can help to actually record (WITH PERMISSION!) a couple of friends talking, then transcribe it. Notice how each person has a distinctive style, and that spoken language does NOT usually come out like written language does. Sentences are incomplete, or run on, or sort of merge with other sentences. Each person also uses a distinctive vocabulary. There have been studies done about the ways in which certain kinds of verbal "stalling" techniques -- anything from a stutter to a series of "Ums" -- are used to control the flow of conversation (mostly to prevent somebody else from beginning to talk).

Then transcribe a bit of talking done by someone whose speech is polished and professional -- for instance, a politician during a question-and-answer session with the press, or a movie star on an interview show. Again, notice the techniques for controlling the conversation. Notice that the professional's spoken language is likely to be fairly similar to written language. Someone whose speech is transcribed and reported learns to avoid some of the styles common in ordinary speech.

And of course, consider how the dialogue you write will move the story along and reveal the personal traits of your speakers. Each speaker needs to present, during their dialogue, some piece of your overall puzzle. Perhaps Person A states some information as fact. Person B must either disagree in some way, or amplify the fact with further details, or their sentence does not add to the story. Dialogue can be interspersed with thoughts, but they should stay brief. If you decide to write dialogue as a series of questions and answers, don't dumb down your characters.

And finally, when you have your dialog written, read it out loud to yourself to see if it sounds too stilted, or if your vocabulary could be misinterpreted when heard. (Then again, a misinterpreted homonym could become a plot point. Example: San Francisco has a gathering place called "Le Central"; Herb Caen once reported that someone's office assistant sent the boss's guests off on a wild goose chase for the "Lace and Trowel".)

-- Rachel Holmen

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