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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dialogue: The Power of the Spoken Word

Okay, so dude, today we're going to address writing dialogue.

Dialogue is important in two ways:
1. Establishing character.
2. Delivering powerful information.

Characterization Through Dialogue
So I started poring through my blog and forum entries, and I found something interesting. I start most sentences with "Dude" "So" or "Okay". That's my voice. If I were to write myself as a character, I could easily establish my voice—and my character—with those three words. Especially through dialogue.

What your characters say can reveal a lot about them. Here's an example from one of my WiP's.

Vi has been arrested for the eighth time (in a dystopian society) for walking with her friend, Zenn. She and another prisoner (Jag) are standing before a council of 13 Greenies. Oh, and she abhors her full first name.
“Miss Schoenfeld,” the middle Greenie said. “Do you have anything to say?”

I looked at Mech-749. Did I have anything to say? What kind of lame-ass question is that?

“I was just walking in the park with a friend,” I said.

“A boy,” a woman said, leaning forward.

“I guess.” I looked at her. “I’ve never really noticed Zenn was a boy before.”

Jag gave a low laugh, but no one shushed him.

“This is the, uh…seventh time you’ve been apprehended,” the middle Greenie said, glancing at his p-screen.

I counted quickly in my mind. Eighth, actually, but I wasn’t going to bring it up. One of them happened before I turned twelve and wouldn’t be on the Official Record. Not sure if I was supposed to speak or not, I opted for not.

“Violet, you are aware that many on this council find you unrehabilitatable.”

“That’s a long word,” I said.
This shows her character in spades. It shows the reader who she is, and that she’ll say just about anything.

Dialogue can do wonders for your character if you follow these rules:
1. Be consistent. If your character freezes up with girls, they have to always freeze up with girls. Unless they've gone through a character-morph in the book and then they can talk to the girl near the end. Catch phrases should be used to identify the speaker without a dialogue tag.
2. Be authentic. Your characters have to be themselves. Don't let them say things they would never say just because you want to convey information.
3. Be unique. Don’t have every single character saying, "Dude". That's not unique, it's just annoying.

Here's another example. This is from Lisa and Laura's manuscript FINDING GRACE, which I practically begged to read. And it was wonderful.

Kate has a date to Homecoming with two boys, Seth and Liam. She's sorta crushing on Liam, and Seth is her geeky neighbor who's had a thing for her for a while. She's dressed up real nice.

“You look…” Seth began but appeared to be at a loss for words.

“Hot. I think the word you’re looking for is hot,” Liam finished for him.
I love Liam’s line. It is the line I'm still thinking about, weeks later. It's the only line I can retype without having to re-read the manuscript. It's brilliant. Even though the characters of both Seth and Liam have been well-established by this time, it still shows who they are. Seth can't find the words, but Liam knows exactly what to say. How to say it. Cuz he's just that bad. Brill-liant.

Of course, you have to KNOW your characters to know how they speak, what they would and wouldn't say in any situation, and how to deliver what you want them to say with power.

Here’s another example from Cole Gibsen’s novel, KATANA.

This is a conversation between Rileigh and her mom, who she calls Debbie. (That gives you insight into their relationship right there.)
“I never went to get my phone,” she answered. “I thought it would be better if I got a weapon.”

I smacked my hand against my forehead. “Haven’t you ever watched a horror movie? Don’t you know what happens to the people who run to the kitchen for a knife instead of calling the police?”

Debbie rolled her eyes. “This is life, Rileigh, not a movie.” She leaned into Dr. Wendell and whispered, “She’s always been a little dramatic. I have no idea where she gets it.”
Um, yeah, I don’t either, Debbie. Ha ha! But this shows not only how Rileigh views her mother, but loads of character from Debbie. It’s great.

Delivering Powerful Information
I want the one line everyone will remember from my book to be something someone says. There is that much power in the spoken word.

So I was watching Aaron Stone last week with my son (yes, I watch the teen Disney channel shows. It's called research. *snarf*) and the guy in it has just spent the afternoon with this girl he's crushing on. I mean, it's Chase Ravenwood. *swoon* She drops a comic book out of her locker, which Aaron thinks is, well, this is what he says.

Aaron: This is great! You're so great!
Chase takes the comic book and turns back to her locker without answering.
Aaron turns away, rubs his hand through his hair, muttering: Did you just say that out loud?

That's when it hit me. What people say out loud is powerful. Ah, the power of the spoken word. Mwa, ha, ha! See what you can glean from the Disney Channel?

Here's an example from another of my WiP's. In this one, Jesse is "discussing" something with his ex-trainer, Cal.
"What happened to you?" Jesse finally asks.

Cal's concerned gaze turns cold. "Early retirement."

"You chose that."

"Did I?"
Hmm…that's powerful. And Cal doesn't even have to come out and say that he did, in fact, NOT choose early retirement.

This example from Kate Karyus Quinn, shows characterization as well as advances an important plot element. Dialogue can be used to do both.

The main character, Stella, is calling her mom to come pick her up from work, after having just been fired from her telemarketing job for yelling at a customer.
There was a long silence. So long that Stella checked her phone to see if the call had been dropped. No such luck.

“You were fired? Are you sure? What exactly did they say to you, Stella?”

“Well, they said, ‘you’re fired.’”

“Oh no, Stella. I really doubt that. Nobody actually says ‘you’re fired’. Maybe it was a joke? Are they jokers over there? Maybe you should go talk to them, and while you’re at it, if you think to mention putting Barbara on one of them, what do you call them? Do not call lists? Oh, but make sure she still gets calls for surveys – especially political ones. Barbara just loves being polled, you know.”

“MOM!” The word exploded from Stella, in the same way her head felt like it was about to explode. “I am one hundred percent certain that I was fired. And why do you want me to talk to them anyway? You’ve wanted me to quit this job from the day I started.”

“Quit, yes. But, Stella, my God, getting fired is a completely different thing.”
I loved the line that says, “Well, they said, ‘you’re fired.’” What a great characterization line for Stella. And her mother’s last line is fantastic. Because getting fired is completely different than quitting. And I’m pretty sure that this firing is going to lead me somewhere exciting…

So, hit me with your best shot. Where's your best dialogue? Does it show characterization? Is it consistent with what the character says and does throughout the novel? Does it convey an important plot element? If not, you might want to reconsider why your character decided to open their mouth at all.

Post your pithy dialogue in the comments. Let's see what you've gotten your characters to spill!


Elana Johnson writes fantasy and science fiction for young adults. When she's not doing that, she's blogging, facebooking, eating out, or wishing she could do any or all of those things.

9 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Great advice, Elana!

My partial was recently rejected by an agent because she wished for a stronger characterization. Had no idea what that meant at the time. But after I made those changes to my dialogue and inner thoughts as I mentioned last week, I had a OMG! moment. That was exactly what she was talking about. Just wish she had been clearer at the time. Luckily another agent was.

Fortunately my dream agent has the improved version. Whew!

Lisa and Laura said...

When we were submitting our last manuscript I remember an agent telling us to go through and read all of the dialogue out loud and I've even heard of writers who are writing YA asking a teenager to read some of the dialogue for them so they can hear if it's working or not.

I think keeping those tips in mind really helped us write better dialogue this time around. I shudder when I think of some of the things we had characters saying in the first draft of our last book.

Lady Glamis said...

Great post, Elana! Thank you! I love dialogue. I think it's one of my strong suits. I think... :)

selestial-owg said...

I don't know if it is my best dialogue (LOL), but here is a snippet...

Cassidy stuck her tiny nose into the air and sniffed. "Unlike you, I have a modicum of self-control."

I cocked an eyebrow at her as we walked. "Modicum? That's a big word for you, sis. Been looking for an opening to use it all week, haven't you?"

She cast me a mock glare. "Butt sniffer."

"That's more like it, blood fiend."

selestial-owg said...

Oh, and thanks for a great post!

Kate Karyus Quinn said...

Great dialogue breakdowns, Elana!

Like Lady Glamis, I really love writing dialogue. I think it is what also drew me to screenwriting before I started working on novels.

ElanaJ said...

Thanks for the comments guys. Yeah, Lisa and Laura, reading out loud is a definite must! In my critique group, whenever someone reads something out loud that I've written, I duck my head. It sounds so stupid! Great point!

selestial_owg - great dialogue! Thanks for sharing!

Stina, I love those moments. Fingers crossed for your dream agent...

LadyG, your dialogue was wonderful! Thanks for sending it. Kate, I love writing dialogue too.

So who else wants to share? :)

Dixon Bennett Rice said...

I have to respectfully disagree - in part. Dialogue is definitely a tool for showing character and giving information, but it's so much more. It's a marvelous way to change pace after a long stretch of narrative. Move than that, it's a great tool for adding some energy.

Haven't you ever started to lose interest in a story that doesn't seem to be going anywhere? After a while, your eyes scroll down the page looking for something more interesting, and you usually don't stop until you come to (a) somebody punching or kissing somebody else, or (b) dialogue.

When you want to throw in a plot twist or otherwise shake things up - yeah, dialogue's one of the more powerful ways.

Some of the best practitioners you can learn from are Robert B. Parker and Elmore Leonard, either of which can write pages of dialogue without an attribution or description. I'm certainly not in their league, but it's fun to try a stretch of pure dialogue. Here's a scene from my unpublished novel "Montana Is Burning."

“Hello.”
"Are you okay, Sonny?"
"Hi, Ma. Why shouldn't I be okay?"
"It's all over the radio. That hateful den of baby killers up at Kintla got itself bombed."
"Is that so?"
"Sonny, I know how you despise them sinners, same as me."
"I hate the meter maid down at Decatur, too. Haven't blowed her up, though."
"Don't sass me none. Honor thy father and mother, saith the Good Book, and--"
"Moses never met you, Ma, or else there'd be a couple loopholes in that one."
"Ooooh, mercy. How you can be so pious one moment, and glorify sacrilege the next? Well, I just don't pretend to understand you."
"Didn’t ask you to."
“Sonny, I seen those fuses and timers, just laying around your place, the way regular folks keep bowling trophies or porcelain clowns. Your pappy was a powder monkey fer thirty years, but he never brought his work home."
"I use them in my job, Ma. If I want to keep all my fingers, I need the practice. Just because you've got a food processor in your kitchen, I don't figure you've been dicing and slicing the enemies of the Lord."
"And them awful people you hang around, those pea brains and cluck cluckers--"
"Skinheads, Ma, and Ku Kluxes. You know darn well I only went to that one meeting over at Hayden Lake."
"A nest of vipers, Sonny, like it says in the Bible. They don't care about the scriptures, except for using them to prove their ignorant-white-trash, drug-dealing, welfare-chasing followers is superior to ev'body else."
"Ma, those are my friends you're talking about."
"I thought you just went to one meeting."
"You're getting on my nerves, Ma."
"And I know about them dynamite wrappings what was used to scare the 'bortion clinic. Not every Tom, Dick and Sonny can get his hands on such as that."
"I really don't know what you're ranting about. Maybe it's time we start checking into nursing homes, Ma. Know what I mean?"
"I just gotta know how to pray tonight, Sonny. Who to bless, and who to protect."
"What are you getting at, Ma?"
"The prayers of the faithful shall be answered, saith the prophet. Did you hurry them child killers to their everlasting torment? Did you?"
"Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't. G' night, Ma."
Click.

This is probably much, much too long, but you've hit on a rich topic here. I'm going to pick up this topic for my blog at http://wredhead.blogspot.com

Keep up the good work.

jwhit said...

I LOVE dialogue. In fact, I so love dialogue that sometimes [well, most of the time] I forget to write narrative. Good thing? Bad thing? More balance needed probably.

Here's one of my favourite creations of all time, back a few years when I was just starting this game. Setting: Kalahari Desert. Present: Tsule - a San, Paul - a white teacher in the village.

‘We need your help. We wish to get a message to my cousin, Minkah, in the big city of the sun. Do you have a way to contact him?’ Tsule asked.

Jakob handed the folded paper to Paul.

‘Minkah? I recall a student by that name many years ago. He’s your cousin, eh? It would be nice to talk to him again, find out what he’s been doing. He was a good writer. I wonder if he managed to make something of his talent. This looks like a Jo’burg phone number. Shouldn’t be a problem. Is there something specific you wish me to tell him?’

Tsule was puzzled. He didn’t understand the words ‘phone number’. Is this a new white man’s magic? How can he say something to Minkah who is so many days’ journey away? Will he go to see him?

‘It is important we get this message to him very quickly. When can you leave?’ Tsule asked.

‘Leave? I don’t have to leave. Oh, you don’t know about telephones. Come here, I’ll show you.’

Tsule told his companions to wait until he could find out about this new white man’s magic, and walked over to join him.

‘This is a telephone. Here, listen,’ Paul said, holding the handset up to Tsule’s ear.

‘Bees!’ Tsule shouted, running for the door before he was stung.

‘Wait! Come back! It isn’t really bees. It’s just a sound like bees,’ Paul called to the retreating Tsule who rushed past Fayfa and Broona to hide under the umbrella-shaped branches of the acacia beside Paul’s house.

Paul walked over to find the man huddled and swatting at the air around his head. He grinned and assured Tsule it was safe, that there were no bees, and led him back to the house. Reluctantly, Tsule followed, but looked around, up and down, to be sure there weren’t any insects near him.

While Tsule stayed away from the telephone table, just in case, Paul dialed the number and waited for a reply. ‘Hello? Is this Minkah? This is Paul Drummond from St Maria’s school. Do you remember me?’

Tsule knew this must be magic. The teacher talked to bees! Maybe the bees take the message to his cousin. He must learn this magic and take it back to the tribe. They will be able to use it for many things. He wondered where this man got his talking bees.

Paul looked up and saw Tsule’s look of confusion, his forehead screwed up in apprehension. ‘Here, Minkah is on this. Come tell him your message yourself.' He spoke into the phone, 'Please hold one moment, Minkah. Tsule is here and wishes to speak to you.'

Tsule stepped cautiously over to Paul. He reached out and took the black bar from Paul and slowly put it to his ear the way he had seen the teacher.

‘Tsule? Is that you?’

Tsule spoke tentatively to the bees, hoping they wouldn’t come out of the holes in this black hive and sting his mouth. ‘Bees, tell Minkah that Ras!hidi wants him to come home to him. There is trouble in the tribe and he thinks Minkah can help somehow. I don’t know what he thinks Minkah will be able to do now that he had been gone so long and are no longer really of the tribe. Surely he will have forgotten how we do things, but Ras!hidi insists.’

Minkah was confused about the talk of bees, but let that pass. He was more concerned about the lack of sincerity in Tsule’s voice and his choice of words. ‘Come to the village? I can try. Please give the phone back to Paul.’


[sorry about the messed up POV. It was an early piece.]