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All About Dialogue

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1 All About Dialogue on Tue Jun 23, 2009 1:59 pm

Why Dialogue?

Why do we have to include dialogue in our work? Can we totally avoid dialogue? Well yes, there are countless stories without dialogue but that is just what they are: dull and somewhat distant stories. Just think of yourself trying to tell of some funny or humorous incident which happened back at the office or a night out with your mates, can you manage doing it without at least once referring to what someone said?

Dialogues are what bring the story-telling to life, you are no longer coldly listening to a narrator as he or she narrates a long past event, but the moment one of the characters voices something, the whole aspect and perseption changes; the story is brought to life, the action is immediately shifted to the present or the listener is time-warped to the day it all happened. The reader is no longer learning of a sequence of distant events, but is there physically present in the same room, in the same place, possibly in the same elevator, plane or car, and he or she is listening in on your character's most intimate things and peeking right into their lives. That is why dialogue is such an important part of story-telling, for not only it enhances and adds color to your tale, but it brings your characters to life.


What is Dialogue?

Dialogue, is primarily the speech and possibly thoughts of your characters and as such ought to considerably differ from the narrative itself in both appearance, grammatical and punctuation rules as well as formation and content. We all know the basic rules of dos and don'ts of proper punctuations, avoiding unnecessary abbreviations, avoiding clichés and such like in ordinary writing, but what about dialogue?

As for the appearance, dialogue is simply enclosed in quotes, and simply started off on a new line whenever a different speaker is involved. As for what may go into a dialogue, well the good news is that really anything can go into it as dialogue is made up of people’s speech and people do say all sort of things in all sorts of ways. People use cliches, they speak foul-language, they swear, they mispronounce words, they drop words, they stop half sentence, and they even invent new words or new ways of saying things. Does that mean that you're free to dump whatever you will inside dialogue? No, not exactly, this really depends on each individual character within your work. Every single character inside that novel may have his or her own mannerisms, his or her own figures of speech, his or her own educational background and social standing. Dialogues must therefore suit these individual parameters and be adapted accordingly.


How easy is it?

Not at all, unfortunately. Dialogue may very well be the hardest and definitely the trickiest part of mastering good writing. But with some determination and with some care and attention to the following guidelines, dialogue may very well end up to be your favorite part of creative writing.

Let us have a look at the major pitfalls generally encountered when handling dialogue:

1. Lack of Individualization

One major error carried out by new writers is in failing to individualize such dialogues. This results in having all the characters within the novel speaking with the same style and complexity of dialogue, this generally being the author’s own everyday speech. It is also true that people who share the same environment for long periods such as work colleagues, or persons who live together such as families or couples generally tend to streamline their vocabulary and speech patterns, but still people are individuals and as such do still have their own uniqueness. Besides, a person's type, content, complexity, and general flow and subject of speech tells a lot about that person's educational, cultural and social background. Beyond that it also reflects the person's current mood and possibly the seriousness, truthfulness, or weight of the message being delivered.

2. Stilted Dialogue

Stilted language or dialogue that does not sound like natural speech. Dialogue or speech patterns that sound too rough, too crude, or too artificial for the relevant speakers or for the situation being exposed.


3. Exchanges of Monologues

Another often encountered abuse of dialogue is very long monologues by main or secondary characters which would not look out of place in a Shakespearian play. At times authors fall in such traps in order to cover story loopholes or to explain otherwise incoherent happenings and therefore 'force' characters to do the explaining. The artificiality of such monologues is very often accentuated by the lack of response of any other persons in the scene.


4. Unnecessary or Filler Dialogue

Dialogue that seems to be present just to add a few extra lines to that page. One that does not deepen our understanding of the characters or furthering the presented scene, and which may be highly irrelevant to the story in general.


5. Name Quoting

Utilizing dialogue to introduce character names or general name throwing within conversations. Although such a technique is actually useful when used carefully and sparingly, do keep in mind that the first or last names of the addressed person are rarely if ever mentioned in everyday speech, unless of course one is calling a person. Names on the other hand are quite frequently used when discussing about third persons normally not present in the conversation.


6. Plot Exposition

Having (more like forcing) one or more characters to explain or repeat a situation for the benefit of the reader. [i:32278cdn]You [/i:32278cdn]are the narrator and not your characters. Again exceptions here do exist and you may need one of your characters who is somehow narrating some event or maybe even a story to others, but silly 'added on the last minute' statements just to cover up some latest ploy or change in plot which you wanted to adjust without much modifications should be avoided. Your characters should not be presented as though being aware of your plot. So to speak, they should not be even aware of being inside your book.

7. Dialogue Presentations

Overuse of Dialogue Presentations or as they are sometimes known, dialogue modifiers. These are the annoying but yet quite necessary descriptive presentations of the dialogue delivery. Basically these are all the possible alternatives to the 'he said/she said' preceding or following dialogue bursts which attempt to bridge the narrative/dialogue gap. As much as such modifiers may be annoying and artificial, yet are as necessary as the ink which needs to fill our pages. Thus care and attention is required in order to strike a correct balance. For further suggested options and examples, please refer to the attached Dialogue Modifiers and Presentations article which I should be posting soon.


How much Dialogue?

Too little or too much dialogue? Not as much in the ratio of speech to narrative but more in the brevity or length of the speech itself. The former resulting in a number of mono-syllabic exchanges which tends to reduce the conversing characters to idiocy, while the latter resulting in Shakespearian type monologues rather than a proper conversation. This of course does not mean that such types of dialogues are necessarily wrong; there may be instances where both may be required. What is wrong is when such types of dialogue are carried on throughout the whole work. So moderate and adjust according to the specific speakers, to their social/educational background, to the emotional buildup inside them, and especially in relation to the situation that you are presenting them. For example, a conversation carried out by two co-workers over lunch may be quite different to what they may say back at the office within earshot of their colleagues. The same can be said for a light conversation by a couple just meeting up in a nightclub to a heated exchange by them much later on as they’re sorting out their relationship.


Checking out your Dialogue

So, how should one find out whether the amount or content of the inserted dialogue is understandable and acceptable? Actually it is even simpler than you imagine. All that you really need is what I call a ‘voice-over’. This is simply to speak out your dialogues in a loud voice without the accompanying descriptions while attempting to act out any intended accents, slurred speech, amplitude, etc., as dictated by your own descriptions. Such a ‘voice-over’ or acting out of these bits of conversation usually brings out any major downfalls, misunderstandings, overstatements, or otherwise unnatural sounding speech. In any one single day of our lives we hear several thousands of words thrown about by a great number of persons, so our ears are really quite expert masters at analyzing spoken speech, even more than we may realize.


Dialogue Ideas

If unsure as to what dialogue one should insert within a particular conversation, try referring to real life. Go somewhere in public and place yourself within earshot of preferably ‘trapped’ performers, as in a group of people or a couple sitting down at a table in a restaurant, a cafe, or perhaps even in a train or bus. Then discreetly of course, try to listen in on their conversations and note what they are saying to each other. Sometimes, conversation snippets captured in this manner can be transcripted directly into your work with little or no modification. In any case, this is a great exercise in realizing what sort of irrelevant and sometimes useless things we actually exchange with each other and how quite often the conversing persons would not really be actively listening. This all goes to show you that a large part of our conversational dialogue included in our finished work need not necessarily be the next candidate for the Nobel prize for literature, but simple everyday speech.

On the other hand, proper use of dialogue can divulge to the reader a great amount of background information which would otherwise have been quite difficult if not longwinded to present in the narrative. Sometimes such gradual divulging of such details to the reader is started off within a dialogue snippet and then expanded on by the following narrative.

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