1. Smelnick
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    Smelnick Member

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    Dealing with Dialogue

    Discussion in 'Plot Development' started by Smelnick, Jun 6, 2010.

    I've always struggled with how to deal with dialogue between characters in my stories. How much is too much, and how much is too little etc. Sometimes I'm writing and I have to throw in a large section of dialogue because it just needs it, but then I end up putting too much that it seems to interrupt the flow of the story a little bit, but without the dialogue, I can't seem to figure another way to express what the character is saying.

    Sometimes I'll do something like this

    Instead of "Get out of the way!" yelled Bob,

    I'll instead write

    Bob yelled for her to get out of the way.

    To me, the former has more oompf in the way of helping the reader to experience the story, but I sometimes use the latter to help reduce the amount of actual dialogue.

    How do you other writer's handle dialogue in a story? Is there any good rule of thumbs I should keep in mind, or am I needlessly worrying and should just go ahead and throw in as much as I want within reason?
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Dialogue is practically an art in itself. Good dialogue is not really about what is being said as much as it is about the characters who are speaking. Often, what is not said is far more important than what is said. The underlying tone, and what is really on the characters' minds is what is known as the subtext. A conversation in a diner might discuss the breakfast menu, and a mutual friend they ran into yesterday, and the slow waitress, but may be avoiding the awkward subject of their having had sex last night, and what it changes in their working relationship.

    Spend a lot of time listening to conversations. Be an unobtrusive snoop. You don't want to intrude into the conversation or their lives. In fact you don't want them to notice you at all. Listen to their word choices, and for when they leave out words or leave sentences unfinished. Notice how often it isn't one conversation, but each person going off on his/her own thoughts. Notice when one of them seems to be trying to change the subject or avoiding direct answers.

    Afterward (when you aren't concentrating on collecting the details of the dialogue) make up stories about what else is going on besides the conversation you heard. It's only an exercise, but it will make you more sensitive to subtext.

    Many writers only use dialogue for exposition, or as a way of filling time between descripotion and action, and it's a bloody shame. The best writers use dialogue as a window into the characters' souls.
     
  3. Ophiucha
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    Ophiucha Member

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    I follow the strict philosophy of watching a Tarantino movie before I write a dialogue-heavy page of my story.

    As my main character is mute, the dialogue is very strange at times, as he has a speaker. So all of his answers come out in the third person, sometimes with commentary (as his speaker is also a friend, not just an employee). But my stories are rarely dialogue-heavy, given the model they follow (epistolary), so I reserve the strong dialogue for the scenes where it really matters. It can have a good impact if you use it well, but most writers just have it blend into the story, and it doesn't act separately from the narrative. Not to say weak dialogue is always a bad thing - a story can lack any dialogue and theoretically function. I would suggest you simply avoid too much exposition, write as much dialogue as you feel is necessary (and in whatever fashion, too), and it will lead to a strong end result.

    If you are looking to strengthen dialogue, though, I recommend reading Thomas Hardy.
     
  4. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    I do that exercise sometimes. I really enjoy it and I think it's really helped me figure out how to do dialogue. Plus I'm stuck at home (for now) and I've noticed more and more how families have a very political element to them. There is always so much more going on than what's on the surface in most any given situation. It's about inflections not just words, avoidance of subjects, all sorts of things. People rarely say exactly what they are thinking. People tend to censor their words for any given reason.

    And I especially agree with the last phrase of that quote. Use it to reveal more about your character. To show what he/she is truly like.
     
  5. Kirvee
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    Kirvee Contributing Member

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    Similar to what Cog said, the best use of dialogue would be to use it as a way of showing the character's true selves.

    I myself try to use dialogue as both a means to show my characters but also to explain things to both the reader or another character and to move the story along.

    For example, in one part of my story, the reader needs to know one of my secondary character's past in order to better understand him in both the reasons why he does certain things and his attitude towards humans. The only feasible way to do this is for the only other character who knows the story of that character's past to explain it to both my female MC and subsequently to the reader. What gets explained through dialogue there is later emphasized in a different scene with that character, but the reader will have a greater understanding of him as will my female MC.

    Another example would be with my male MC and the inner evil persona he has to deal with after a certain point in the story. The persona talks quite often, and he uses his dialogue as a means of breaking my male MC down from a mental and emotional stand point and my male MCs attempts to counter the abuse serve to show more that he's weak and a bit fragile as well as other parts of his character the reader wouldn't have been able to know otherwise.

    What you need to be careful of, though, isn't really how much or how little dialogue you write, but how you write it. When you break it down, all dialogue really is is a spoken conversation written in words. As such, dialogue is different for each character because it will show various things such as how they speak, their education and whatnot. Characters with an accent will sometimes have their words written in such a way because it's what they're saying, well-educated characters may use big words frequently, little kids will speak in fragments and use nothing-words, etc. etc.

    In a medium where there are no pictures to aid the reader, dialogue is what makes the difference between a prince and a commoner, or a law-abiding citizen and a street thug.
     
  6. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    I was told recently not to have any page more than 40% dialogue. This was intended as tongue-in-cheek advice, so don't all jump on me. But it seems a good idea to make sure that there is a general balance of dialogue and text, with dialogue coming out around 40% max. I can see it could vary a bit according to genre.
     
  7. Joules03
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    Joules03 Senior Member

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    What helps for me is to read my dialogue outloud. You can really get a sense of the pacing when you do that, and that helps you decide if you should add more beats to slow it down, or add more dialogue to move things along.
     
  8. Ellipse
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    Ellipse Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would look at it like this: Is the piece of dialogue you use an intricate part of the scene? Does the dialogue need to be said or can it be described some other way?

    For example, if you wanted to write, "Get out of the way!" yelled Bob, that could be completely removed by writing it as an action instead: Bob shoved her out of the way.

    It still has the same oomph effect but the character never said anything. If it can be rewritten as I described, then the dialogue wasn't really important.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Either way, one sentence later, Bob is curled up on the floor clutching his groin.
     
  10. Talia
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    Talia New Member

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    One way that seems to make things run smoothly with dialogue is to include it with an action. You don't end up with eight billion "(s)he said" that way, and you avoid redundancy.

    Example...

    Kayla shifted uncomfortably under his gaze, her own eyes downcast. "I don't know that I can apologize enough..."

    "You can't," he assured her. He allowed the silence to drift between them for what seemed an eternity, "you may leave."

    Other ways are to use different words pertaining to responses or speaking in general. It adds quality to the voice or the deliverance.

    Croaked
    Rasped
    Cried
    Sobbed
    Whined
    Quipped

    Anything you can do to avoid the word 'said' can make the flow much smoother.
     
  11. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Sorry, but fishing for substitutes for said will brand you as an amateur. Used properly, he/she/propername said virtually disappears to the reader.
     
  12. Talia
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    Talia New Member

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    While I can see and agree with that view, I also like to avoid:

    "Don't do that," Bob said.

    Without hesitation, she said, "Stop me."

    Not using substitutions or diversity will ultimately make the writing flat.

    My intent in the advice is not to discourage use of the word 'said' entirely, rather to avoid over use. It'll be used enough even with effort to avoid it. Often enough it's the only word that fits, but I do think it should be avoided if there is a way without making the delivery awkward.
     
  13. MedleyMisty
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    MedleyMisty Member

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    My style seems to be no tags.

    Like...hmm...

    Bob stared at her. She couldn't do this. She couldn't. If she opened the box, if she saw his soul, she would leave. And he would die.

    "Don't do that."

    She looked back at him, her eyes burning with the need to know, the need to understand, the need to not be scared anymore.

    "Stop me."

    Yeah - given a choice I go for making it clear who's talking without using dialogue tags. It's a habit picked up from writing Sims stories, where I use pictures to show who's talking. So that's another option.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Using diverse verbs instead of said is not the answer. Varying the position of the dialogue tag, replacing it with a beat, and omitting it entirely are better strategies.

    There are times you will want to use a different verb, to emphasize an unexpected manner of speech, but be careful not to overdo that as well. And when you do, avoid non-speech verbs such as gasped or giggled. Ever try to deliver a line as a giggle? It's ridiculous.

    Using "variety verbs" in tags is a beginner's mistake. If you think using said all the time sticks out, trust that falling back on variety verbs will stick out even more, especially to a submissions editor.
     
  15. Thanshin
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    Thanshin Active Member

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    On the topic of chosing between:

    I use the first option when it's part of a longer dialogue and the second if there is no dialogue. Essentially, I never leave a one line dialogue.

    On the topic of "he said" vs "he yelled". I avoid "yelled", use "said" if I absolutely must and I usually consider it the symptom of not having set up the dialogue correctly. Needing any of those makes me go look for two, very different, mistakes:

    1 - [He yelled] The reader doesn't know in what tone something is said. Which leaves two main options:
    1.A - It's a sudden change of tone. Correct.
    1.B - The tone was already present but isn't clear. Error.

    2 - [He yelled] The reader can't know who is speaking by reading the text. Which, again, leaves two main options:
    2.A - It's a short message and the very start of a conversation. Usually correct.
    2.B - Any other case. Error.

    Of those, in 2.B not only I fall amazingly often but there are times when I'm simply not skilled enough to correct the error while leaving the meaning untouched.
     
  16. valdein lawnstin
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    valdein lawnstin Member

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    this is a great point, and i tell everybody that i talk to about reading, that in a movie you cant understand emotion unless you can read the characters mind or if it's stated in a sililaque. this is why to me i would rather read a book than watch a movie, but you cant get into the 'she yelled' ,he blurted out' 'they sobbed', those one word agdictives for speacking get redundant and hard to fallow.

    try stuff like this

    "I told you a thousand times" she said as she shoved her husband's arm.
    or
    as the couple stepped out of the car I grimaced with hatred, "fool, she is mine, i will get her back"

    body language is one of the most understandable languages in human interaction, and if you do them with callousness of tenderness it tends to express more. careful though if your dialog is filled with this, your story becomes hard to focus on
     
  17. writingchick8
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    writingchick8 Member

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    In terms of dialogue, it's inevitable that you'll hear plenty of different opinions, and they're just that--opinions. Of course there are certain correct ways to format dialogue, but with how you choose to style your dialogue, that's up to you.

    I agree with the 40% dialogue per page, that sounds about right to me. I would avoid overusing dialogue, because you need descriptions as well, and I also tend to dislike people rambling on. Yes, you may need to have some characters give big speeches, but there certainly shouldn't be one per page.

    Nor do you want to have too little dialogue, though. It is often needed to carry the story, and to be honest, it irritates me when people do paragraphs and paragraphs of unneeded descriptions, rather than having the characters I've come to know and love interact.

    I honestly really like the dialogue MedleyMisty showed above for intense scenes, and then save the tagging for other, less intense ones.

    I agree with Cogito on the point that you don't need to go verb-searching for something other than said, but that being said, it never hurts to throw in some other verbs from time to time to make your writing more interesting.
     

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