1. I.A. By the Barn
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    I.A. By the Barn A very lost time traveller Contributor

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    How do you get dialogue right?

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by I.A. By the Barn, Sep 5, 2016.

    I'm still on my second lot of edits on my complete redo of my short story and I'm really stuck with all my dialogue. The dialogue was a big problem in my last attempt and it still is now (and now I can see it and it makes me feel sick to reread what I wrote). Here are the main problems I'm having with it:
    1. It is either too juvenile, posh or stiff. When I make changes it seems to flip between these.
    2. I'm having trouble making individual voices, they all seem the same.
    3. The ways emotions are expressed seems wrong. One character is concerned for another, but I don't know whether it really works.
    Here is a sample of what it's like at the moment. It isn't pretty, frankly I find my dialogue yucky.

    “It’s not going to be enough,” said William, his head hanging over the short stack of coins. “I’ve got to pay the Lanbry Express to get it there- fuck, have we got time?”

    Tim nodded with a smile. It would only take a few minutes.

    “-and by that time there’ll only be this.” William split the stack in two, one with three outsids and the other with only two, that one being the remainder.

    Timothy leaned back to look up at him, William’s eyes obscured with loose black hair. “You could always wait until we’re a bit further up the coast, closer so you won’t have to pay as much.”

    “And by that time they could be out of a home.”

    Timothy opened his mouth to say something but closed it realising whatever he said wouldn’t help.

    Ugh, it makes me want to cry. Sorry for asking all these questions lately.
     
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2016
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  2. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    It reads fine to me.

    The only advice I can offer is to not be obsessed trying to make your dialogue sound ultra realistic. People have a thing about this, and I include myself up until very very recently; the notion that dialogue has to sound realistic. The trick to good dialogue is not realism but making it sing - especially difficult if you include exchanges about the mundane and ordinary. Find a balance between natural and interesting / quirky / funny - regardless of what it is they're talking about. John Fonte was a brilliant exponent of this. As was Charles Bukowski.

    Try to add a bit more colour to your beats - throw in the odd quirk or line that will take the reader by surprise.

    It's difficult, but your example here doesn't read as bad as I think you're imagining.
     
  3. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think the "make voices individual" rule is highly over-emphasized. If you were to write down the dialogue you hear in everyday life, would you be able to tell who's speaking just by reading it? Maybe if there was, like, a teenager and an old person having a conversation, but two people of fairly similar types will speak in fairly similar ways. I wouldn't sweat it too much.

    Other than that the main issue I see with your passage is more a POV thing - and it's not wrong, it's just not my preferred style. You're using a fairly distant POV, and as such it's hard to get a sense of immediacy or connection to the characters, at least for me. (Well, I didn't really get the splitting of stacks graphic, either--is "outsids" a typo or is it a word you've developed elsewhere? And there's a pronoun issue in that sentence as well - "He" should probably be a noun, otherwise it refers to the wrong character. I think.) Anyway, the POV thing came out mostly in the last line, with the filter words--not a big issue.

    Overall, this didn't jump out at me as an example of terrible dialogue--not by any means.
     
  4. OurJud
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    OurJud Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is written in 1st, but it's an exchange between the MC and a waitress. See if you can pick up the points I made in my last post. The beauty here is that the dialogue isn't particularly realistic, but it sings so beautifully. It's from John Fonte's Ask the Dust. Earlier in the passage the MC has noted the tatty sandals the waitress is wearing.

    ......'Maybe this isn't coffee at all,' I said. 'Maybe it's just water after they boiled your filthy shoes in it.' I looked up to her black blazing eyes. 'Maybe you don't know any better. Maybe you're naturally careless. But if I were a girl I wouldn't be seen in a Main Street alley with those shoes.'
    ......I was panting when I finished. Her thick lips trembled and the fists in her pocket were writhing under the starched stiffness.
    ......'I hate you,' she said.
    ......I felt her hatred. I could smell it, even hear it coming out of her, but I sneered again. 'I hope so,' I said. 'Because there must be something pretty fine about a guy who rates your hatred.'
    ......Then she said a strange thing; I remember it clearly. 'I hope you die of heart failure,' she said. 'Right there in that chair.'
     
    Last edited: Sep 5, 2016
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  5. I.A. By the Barn
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    I.A. By the Barn A very lost time traveller Contributor

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    @BayView Ah, outsids is meant to be their form of currency. Sorry about that.
    And thank you for pointing out the pronoun problem too. I'll fix that :D
    @OurJud Thank you for putting up an example, I can see what you mean, I don't think anyone would say that in real life, but yes, it is very effective.
    On POV, I never know what to use, I don't like using first person as I often slip too deep into the character's thoughts and get distracted and with third person I'm too distant, I don't know what to do.
    Thank you to the both of you, got lots to think about now!
     
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  6. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't see anything wrong with the dialogue in the sample you posted.
     
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  7. Dr. Mambo
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    Dr. Mambo Active Member

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    A tip (I think) I picked up from another thread on this site is to read all of the dialogue in a story out loud in the tone of voice you imagine your characters using to see if their conversation flows well. You've probably done this already, but I mention it because it helped me fix the occasional idiosyncrasy I didn't notice when reading through my stories.
     
  8. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Does any writer feel that comfortable with their dialogue? I don't. I think because I can see the 'mechanics' of it. I know why it's there so it never feels quite natural.
    Your snippet doesn't read that bad. I'd maybe tweak the eyes obscured line but other than that the dialogue seems fine.
    One trick I find that helps me be okay with the dialogue is not to let it go on too long. I'm less likely to hate it if there's less of it. Plus I can save a lot of back and forth with simple lines of exposition or description - Ralph and Steve agreed on hot dogs at Pinks for lunch.
     
  9. Spencer1990
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    Spencer1990 Contributing Member

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    I don't see anything inherently wrong with the dialogue you have. None of it reads as if it's forced, faked, etc. The disconnect you feel may come from being too close to the work, analyzing it too much.

    I love what @BayView said about dialogue sounding similar between characters. I think it's absolutely absurd to say that every character needs to sound differently. The characters need to sound like themselves. It's hard to say if your dialogue is too rigid or doesn't match your characters without knowing more about them. If that makes sense.
     
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  10. I.A. By the Barn
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    I.A. By the Barn A very lost time traveller Contributor

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    Thanks guys! :blowkiss: Just got to apply all this to all my dialogue now... fun, fun, fun!
     
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  11. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    For the first twelve years I wrote more-or-less seriously, I wrote screenplays and stage-plays and there is no better way to hone the craft of writing dialogue, especially with stage-plays since they're 99% dialogue.

    By the time I was forced back into the stage playwrighting head-space in grad school, I was pretty darned good at it and now I'd say dialogue is what I'm best at.

    So, yes, it's possible to feel comfortable with it, but it takes a lot of work.
     
  12. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I wrote a few screenplays myself and it is a great way to practice dialogue but I still am not that comfortable with it. I'm a hundred times more comfortable with it than when I first started writing but I can still make myself cringe.
     
  13. big soft moose
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    big soft moose Active Member

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    What you've got there seems fine - the only thing i picked up is whether the william would name the lanbry express in full, and also what will only take a few minutes ( I assume to get to the lanbry express) and whether thats worth mentioning, also that william uses profanity for a rather trivial concern about time, but not about his major concern, and why tim is smiling which seems inappropriate and finally I wonder if you are perhaps labouring the point (Sorry - I realise thats rather a lot of points, having said i didnt have any)

    Over all my advice would be that by cutting out unecessary descriptors you focus the characters, and thus the readers, atention on the main point.

    May be something like this

    "Fuck it" William cursed "there isnt enough , Those robbing bastards at Lanbry will charge two outsids to get it there and that only leaves three for the rent"
    "May be you could wait til we are closer" suggested Tim " then delivery will cost less"
    "yeah but by then they could have been evicted" William banged his hand on the table in frustration, toppling the short stack of coins

    The other thing i'd say is not to be so hard on yourself - the writing ive seen from you in RP etc is excellent. The reason they call it the 'shitty first draft' is because no one ever gets it right straight off the pen.
     
    Last edited: Sep 7, 2016
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  14. Sack-a-Doo!
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    Sack-a-Doo! Contributing Member Contributor

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    Perhaps it was more the stage-plays that gave me a leg up with dialogue and when I think about it, that makes sense since stage-plays are so dialogue heavy.

    It also helped a lot that most of these plays were produced. Even non-profit productions will help because you'll get input from both directors and actors.

    Actors especially are helpful because they'll let you know when a sentence runs on too long, when it's self-contradictory, or just sounds odd for the character. Actors love it when they can help you nail the voice of a character and make it unique from all other characters. They may whine and complain (and even come across as flight-headed in doing so) but it's all good and they'll help you no end in your understanding of effective dialogue.

    Even a lot of amateur actors study the great plays or at least read them and they pick up a lot of insight along the way. With each actor concentrating on bringing a single character to life, it's a great opportunity to test-drive dialogue for how realistic and unique it sounds.

    And since dialogue has to convey so much (emotion, attitude, relationships, desires... even stage directions in some cases) while also condensing the ramble-on patterns of real-life speech into something non-boring, I don't know that I would have a descent understanding of it without having written plays and worked with producers, directors and actors to bring them to stage.

    Perhaps there's another way, but if so, I'm not aware of it.
     
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  15. I.A. By the Barn
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    I.A. By the Barn A very lost time traveller Contributor

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    Aw dank you @big soft moose :supercute:
     
  16. zoupskim
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    zoupskim Contributing Member Contributor

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    What you posted reads fine. It's natural, yet not too "Uhm, like, we should, uh, try to catch the train, brah."

    I've found that good dialog comes from good characters. Make sure your secondary characters don't just spout needless lines for the sake of your hero.

    I would also try to write dialog last, compared to other story elements.
     
  17. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Although I like using bests (embeffed sctions) to marry the dialogue to the scene, it's possible to overdo it, and I think your example suffers somewhat from that malady. Some of the description you slip in, like the gair scene ts in tcuring the eyes, is probably so familiar to the characters that they would not even notice it, so it , eally has no place here.

    Ideally, dialoguw should do more than echo conversation. Let dialogu4 reveal emotion, relationship, biases, agendas, any the like, and don't pull attention away from with too many extraneous elements.

    The best dialogue presents subtleties of character that would not be presented as well by other means.
     
  18. Luke Scott
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    Luke Scott Member

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    Dialogue is actually very good.
     
  19. Ghost Reflection
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    Ghost Reflection New Member

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    Not sure if you are still looking for some advice, but here some more. What has worked form me is understanding the relationship between characters. I think is has already been pointed out, but when characters know each other fairly well there are some things that don't need to be said. Or, even if they don't know each other very well, but are sharing in the situation the dialogue could be more concise. Shorter sentences or answers can also convey a sense of frustration with the situation. on the other hand, a character that is rattling on could present nervousness. It's really about what is relevant to the character and POV. I can see why you feel your dialogue is flat. It's not bad, but it can fall into being generic. It might help to consider character idiosyncrasies or thought patters. the ideals and perception a character has about the would likely slips into their speech in some way.
     
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  20. SethLoki
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    SethLoki Unemployed Autodidact Contributor

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    Yes, or give away the struggle of the author in penning the dialogue. Dialogue's the bane of my writing (too @I.A. By the Barn ) existence and doubly so when I want to convey a new personality through it. Nowadays, in narration mode, I'm able fly along (own voice and all that); the time comes though for a couple of 'noobs' to have a natter, then cue the treacle wade. Slow...and unsteady as she goes—even skim-writing drafting it, really coarsely, loads me with unease as I feel I'm dodging my own failing. Putting off till tomorrow as it were.

    That's the rub, yes. I just hope the folks who read my stuff are unaware of the struggle yet at the same time appreciate it. :meh:
     
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  21. OJB
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    OJB Member

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    I personally (and I know this sound tedious) do it in three stages.
    1. First I write out all the subtext.
    2. I then right the scene with just action, but no dialogue.
    3. I finally add the dialogue and delete the subtext, with the exception of the P.O.V character's subtext (internal dialogue).

    I'm sure there are faster ways, but that's the only method I got.
     
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  22. Denegroth
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    Denegroth Banned Supporter

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    That's a good method. It's similar to how one places objects in an oil painting, using vine charcoal, hard charcoal, fixative then a rag to brush most of it away, leaving an armature on which to hang the paint.

    It is said the most difficult part of writing is writing natural dialogue. Very rarely do we write dialogue for a struggling author working on a word processor. More often it's a cop, or a prostitute, or a priest...drugged out rock star...venal back stabbing...whoa! Anybody but US! So, we know how we'd speak, and often times writers would write the dialogue the way it would be if they were the cop, or prostitute...rather than how a cop would actually speak.

    Often times writers will make their characters unusually eloquent in order to display their ability with their craft. Yet, a cop is a cop because he isn't qualified to be the chair of the linguistics department at Oxford. The prostitute is what he/she is for the same reason - if they could be in a higher tax bracket, they certainly wouldn't be sending themselves to an early grave just to make a living. Yet, the temptation is there.

    One solution to this is said to be acquaint yourself with such people - or many and varied people. Sometimes this isn't easy. If you look at how we live today, and how (for instance) someone like Jack London lived. Hemingway was criticized for unnaturally putting himself in places he didn't naturally belong just for the sake of ginning-up material for writing, i.e., the Spanish Civil War. I don't think we'd consider heading for Aleppo to learn how to put that edge to our material.

    If that's a fact, then there are those who argue you should confine yourself to writing about what you know about. The novelists of the late 20th Century made a big deal of this. They viewed stepping out of your neighborhood, your backyard, as being contrived. Painting? Renoir said of all the painters flocking to Paris, "They come here to paint the Seine but they don't know the Seine. They know their own gardens. They should paint their own gardens." I think it's an interesting challenge to an author, and meeting this challenge might be one of the characteristics that makes a book great, as opposed to good.

    For myself, since I was 16 I've gone places and done things that my elders were quick to tell me was a waste of my time. I've watched black gentlemen throwing cash down on a pool table after the bar closed; rolling the dice. I've watched drag queens prepare for floor shows. I've farmed tobacco, gone shrimping on the Gulf of Mexico, flown in multi-engine jets with Air Force pilots - and a goodly list of other such things, keeping my mouth shut and listening to how they speak to one another. What do they talk about? How do they address one another? What about tone of voice, facial expression, hand gestures...what makes them them?

    It's helped. Then again, there's a lot of different people in this world, and I've only met a few. I still put a lot of stock in not talking to them myself, but being where I can hear them talk to one another, and others. Never turn your nose up at burning that shoe leather. Hey. It's life. It gives you something to do with your time...besides pounding your head on a keyboard.
     
    Last edited: Nov 23, 2016
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