1. yagr
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    yagr Contributing Member

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    Dialogue resources

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by yagr, Jul 22, 2013.

    I consider myself extraordinary at writing letters, essays, and articles. I've published approximately 150 articles and one non-fiction book and have, in general, received very positive feedback. I am completely lost when it comes to fiction however, and yet this is where I feel myself drawn. Through my own reading, I have come to conclude that dialogue tends to carry narrative and I have zero experience in writing dialogue. Would someone direct me to a good resource?
     
  2. Kita
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    Kita Senior Member

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    Although I cannot offer any resources, I can offer advice. I think of my characters as living entities with their own personality. Quite often they carry traits of my own personality so I would imagine myself as that character and consider how they would react to certain situations. This does mean my writing is usually only planned as far as a beginning and ending but it works for me. Good luck!
     
  3. sanco
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    sanco Contributing Member

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    Tarantino films.
     
  4. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Unless you are writing a screenplay, seeing how dialogue is used in film will be of little use to you.

    Cogito has a blog on this site entitled, "He Said, She Said - the Mechanics of Dialogue", but that deals mostly with proper use of tags, punctuation, etc. The OP question seems to be more of how to effectively use dialogue within the structure of a fictional story.

    The first thing to remember is that dialogue is not a recreation of normal conversation, which has a great deal of incidental and unimportant content, social courtesies, side comments - things that do not advance a fictional plot. Dialogue therefore needs to be a very condensed presentation of what would be in a real conversation.

    Dialogue is one way to develop a character, inform the reader of smidgens of backstory or spring a surprise in the flow of your story, but too much can be tedious to read. I therefore tend to keep my dialogue exchanges short, and if I do need an extended exchange, I look for ways to break it up into manageable chunks (at the same time, if you are writing a fast-paced thriller and the reader is waiting to discover some key fact, a slightly-longer-than-it-needs-to-be section of dialogue can really build the tension).

    Another thing to remember is that while dialogue is a good expositional tool, it slows the pace of what you are writing. That's not necessarily a bad thing - there are times you want to slow things down. But overreliance on dialogue can slow your story to a crawl, so I try to balance it with a roughly equal amount of "carry" - a mix of fast-paced showing and a healthy amount of telling.

    The only way to really understand all this is to read a lot. Re-read the books you really like with an eye toward how the author used dialogue. See where different authors make varied uses of dialogue (there is no one right way to do it).

    Best of luck.
     
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  5. UnrealCity
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    UnrealCity Active Member

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    Hi EdFromNY,

    I don't want to hijack this thread with my question but I'm just wondering about what you've written here, and I believe the question is relevant.

    I have seen on other parts of this forum where people have said that editors/publishers tend to flip quickly through manuscript to check that there is enough dialog and that the story isn't mostly narrative. Since reading this I have considered that I don't use dialog enough to push a story forward. Do you think narrative is more effective to push a story forward? Does extensive dialog really slow down the pace? How do you decide on the right balance between dialog and narrative? Does it matter how much of each if the writing is compelling or written well?

    Sorry if I'm asking too much. Dialog is an interesting topic, one I don't know much about!
     
  6. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    [MENTION=54966]UnrealCity[/MENTION] - Not hijacking at all. I think you've gotten to the heart of the matter.

    Allowing that there is no one right way to tell a story, most advice that I've seen suggests that balance is the key. One of my favorite writers, and certainly one who was willing to discuss his own thoughts on the craft at length, was James A. Michener, who distinguished between "scene" and "carry" - what we now typically refer to as "showing" and "telling". "Scene" can be dialogue, description or detailed action narrative. "Carry" is more general narrative, covering a lot more ground in fewer words. Michener advocated a roughly equal balance between the two (which is funny, since some of his descriptions could go on and on - in Tales of the South Pacific, he took about three pages to describe a single sunrise).

    Extensive dialogue, like extensive description, tends to slow down the passage of time in the story. That's neither good nor bad, it's just how it is. Narrative is a way to move time forward much more quickly. Exactly what proportion you need will depend a great deal on the story you are writing. My current project is a historical novel with a current day story wrapped around several historical chapters. The historical chapters together cover about 500 years, while most of the individual historical chapters cover 30 to 50 years (although one of them only covers about four). My biggest challenge is to keep time moving quickly enough to have a work of publishable length while pausing for enough detail to have a work of publishable interest. Not surprisingly, much more than any other project I've ever taken on, I find myself planning, writing, stopping, reconsidering, and in two of the four historical chapters already written, going back and doing a complete re-write after the first draft of the chapter was finished.

    Your final question -
    - is exactly the point, but then the things we are talking about are the building blocks to what makes the writing compelling and well-written. That's why I was careful to point out that a lot depends on the kind of story you are writing. On this forum, you will see a lot of "rules", and people often tend to be rather ham-handed about them - "Show, don't tell" being a prime example. Much better to understand what different ways of telling a story do, and then decide what is best for you.
     
  7. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    the best way to learn how to write good dialogue in fiction is to READ it... constant reading of the best fiction writers' work and studying how and how often dialog is used by the masters can equal a pricey course on writing dialogue...
     
  8. Huginn Blue
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    Huginn Blue New Member

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    Listening to dialogs in movies might not help very much, but I like to read screenplays.
    Often, the dialog in the movie ends up been quite different from the screenplay, yet some writers (and here Tarantino is a great example) can write excelent dialogs.
    Tarantino's said that, when writing a script, the scrip itself must work as a piece of art on it's own. If it does, if it is interesting enough that people would be willing to buy it and read it, then it must be good enough to became a good movie plot.

    Now it's very important to point that I read and learn a lot more from actual books than from screenplays.
     
  9. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    I've never thought about writing Dialogue so much as something you can learn from a book, rather, it's something that you learn from personal experience with life...

    Verbal communication is one of the most fundamental of human interactions. We've been doing it for--basically--ever. And as such, it seems to me that the best way to write dialogue is to stay true to reality and write it in the same way that people speak to each other.

    Trying to stay true to the nature of humanity, regardless of the setting or genre, is something that people will immediately be able to relate with. So, make your characters dialogue logical and believable. One thing that's helped me with that is reading it back out loud. If it sounds cheesy or contrived, revise it.

    Another thing that I think is important when writing dialogue is to know yourself who your characters really are, so that you can figure out what it is that they would say and when.

    Hope that helps! :D
     
  10. Steve Day
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    Steve Day Senior Member

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    Read some- a lot- of Elmore Leonard.

    Get Shorty ( the film) has a good bit of dialog lifted straight from Get Shorty (the book.)
    Ditto Tarantino's Jackie Brown.
    Djibouti also has some nice conversations.
    Just grab three at random next time you are in the library.
     
  11. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    I have to disagree with this. Ordinary conversation - the way people speak to each other - is filled with extraneous items like social greetings, asking after someone's family, comments on the weather, casual interests ("how about those Yankees!") and even stuttering, hesitation or bad speech habits that will only bog down your story (and fluff up your word count). That's why I said earlier that written dialogue has to be a condensed version of actual conversation.
     
  12. Pheonix
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    Pheonix A Singer of Space Operas and The Fourth Mod of RP Staff Contributor

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    I know what you mean... And I suppose that I agree mostly.

    But it seems like there needs to be a balance. If you remove all of the fluff, I don't think that dialogue feels real. But if you leave it all in, it does get tiresome.

    I guess what I was trying to say was that it needs to be believable that a person would actually say whatever it is that the character is saying. Not with all the superfluous extras of human conversation, but that it should be things that people would actually say, and not just be cliched or totally unrealistic.

    Sorry if I didn't clarify that well enough.
     
  13. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    [MENTION=39909]Pheonix[/MENTION] - I know what you mean. I think the answer is to include an occasional sampling, but, like cayenne pepper, just a pinch for a hint of flavor.
     
  14. UnrealCity
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    UnrealCity Active Member

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    [MENTION=18415]EdFromNY[/MENTION] Thanks for responding to my questions, I appreciate it:)
     
  15. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    This. No matter how much you learn from listening to conversations (important anyway!) or movie/TV dialogue (also helpful), there is no substitute for seeing how the best writers manage it in written fiction.

    Dialogue is not simply a record of conversation. Good dialogue has purpose in every utterance, and also in what is not said. Good dialogue conveys information on multiple levels.
     
  16. starlingarcher
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    starlingarcher New Member

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    This might sound silly, but I go back and take notes from conversations I've had with people. You know how after you have a conversation with someone, you think back a lot of times like "Man, I wish I'd said -this- instead!" I note things like that and just keep like a sort of journal of interesting bits of conversation. Even if I don't use them later on, it kind of gets my brain thinking along the lines of snappy dialogue.
     
  17. yagr
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    yagr Contributing Member

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    Thank you all for responding. I have been given a good start and am prepared to begin studying now. I've got three books and a notebook in front of me and am going to try to not get sucked into the stories and just take notes.
     
  18. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    EdFromNY's first post (and the others) on this thread really say it all.

    I particularly like the two points he made:

    1) Good dialogue it NOT a word-for-word recreation of normal speech.
    This is a trap lots of new writers can fall into, thinking that recreating trivial conversations makes the piece more "real." It might do, but that doesn't automatically make it interesting! How many boring conversations have you been forced to listen to in your lifetime? Exactly...

    2) Dialogue actually SLOWS a story down.
    I know it's a common belief that dialogue speeds things up, and certainly lots of short speeches take up less room on a page than general narrative—meaning you turn pages more quickly—but it also means you're dealing in 'real time' and can't speed things up beyond it. Nice, when you want to keep your reader pinned in place for a good reason, but it's not the only weapon in a writer's arsenal.

    Personally, I am likely to abandon reading a piece that contains pages and pages of unbroken dialogue exchanges—especially if the individual speeches aren't even tagged, or broken up by bits of description of what the characters are doing as they speak. I routinely read books that contain pages and pages of prose without dialogue, though.

    Dialogue is a wonderful way to show character, and also to give a flavour of how relationships work within your story, but it has limits as a writer's device. I'd say, don't over-use it.
     
  19. Steve Day
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    Steve Day Senior Member

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    Another master of written dialog was Geo. V. Higgins, a Boston lawyer. Best known for The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
    If you can find a copy, study it.
    From Wikipedia:
    "George V. Higgins was proud of his skill in rendering dialogue with great accuracy; he liked to point out that accurate dialogue was not a verbatim transcription of things said but an imaginative recreation in compressed form."
     
  20. sanco
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    sanco Contributing Member

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    While I agree that if you're writing novels, the best source of learning how to write novels would come from reading, I don't think understanding film dialogue is all that useless.

    This balance of realistic rendering and creative purpose should apply to both novels and films, although films would allow more leeway for realism than novels. I think that balance is exactly what makes Tarantino (to carry on the example) good at what he does.

    Take the opening of Reservoir Dogs for instance. What may seem like a menial conversation about the sexual subtext of Madonna's "Like A Virgin" is actually a subtle conversational powerplay between a group of criminals. It's also a great introduction into the different characters: their own ways of communicating, their conflicting beliefs (Mr. Pink doesn't believe in tipping) and their own unique insights and worldviews. It also lets us in on the heirarchy of the group and establishes the nature of the relationships between them (Mr. Blonde: "Hey Joe, you want me to shoot this guy?", Mr. White: "You shoot me in a dream and you better wake up and apologise").

    While EdfromNY makes a good point that superfluous "um"s and "ah"s are just tedious to read, characters should always have distinguishable quirks that separate their voices from others.
     

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