By archer88i on Jul 24, 2017 at 6:49 PM
  1. archer88i

    archer88i Banned Contributor

    Apr 11, 2008
    Likes Received:

    Dialogue is not a transcript

    Discussion in 'Articles' started by archer88i, Jul 24, 2017.

    There are some fundamental differences between actual, spoken conversation and the dialog we expect to see in fiction. This means that dialog is one of the most difficult things to make "realistic" in writing, because the idea that we need to make is "realistic" at all is a misapprehension. I'm going to run down a few highlights.

    1. People say "um" and "uh." Characters do not.

    It's not that characters are that much more intelligent than the average person, but rather that the reader hasn't got time to filter out a lot of "Er... Um. Hm," every time your protagonist needs to order a sandwich. These interjections are one of a set of several things that we add to dialog only as seasoning: a dab here, a pinch there, and you're done. You can throw in one of these to demonstrate that a character is taken aback by something or confused by some strange circumstance. Use too many, however, and what you're signaling is not that something weird is going on, but rather that your character is stupid, apt to be confused by the most mundane things.

    I don't bring this up because it's a thing people commonly get wrong--writers rightly see the "hmmmm" in their stream of consciousness as their own grasping for what comes next rather than the character's--but because this concept of "spice" or "seasoning" is a good one to carry forward.

    2. People work blue. Characters are PG-13.

    If I had to guess how often I used the word "fuck" throughout my college years, I would be too ashamed to actually give you a number. It's dropped off a little since then, believe it or not. This is a thing that real people do: put them in a blue collar situation and they will swear a blue streak up and down the road. Characters don't have this luxury.

    "But Tom Clancy's characters swear nonstop!"

    You're right; his works are a prominent exception when I think about this topic. But how would his characters express an extreme sentiment in a trying time? Like, what if someone were to drop a bomb on their garage? Well, they'd have pretty much the same reaction to that as they would to sour milk on their Cap'n Crunch. "God dammit to hell, stupid expiration date..."

    By all means, let your characters swear, but use some restraint so that profanity doesn't lose its impact. Do that, and it's also possible to portray a character as being "foul-mouthed," a thing that becomes far more difficult to pull off if everyone in your cast is screeching four letter words nonstop.

    3. People make small talk. Characters make points.

    I've had two people ask me how I'm doing today and a third talk to me about their dog. None of that has a damn thing to do with anything I'm trying to accomplish. It's called small talk, and it's something humans engage in when stuck together on an elevator, or when waiting for a taxi after someone has dropped a bomb on their garage. I assume. Anyway, the point is that your characters should not do this. They should not have time to do this. That's not to say that every line of dialog has to relate directly to your plot. Not every spoken word relates to the Death Star: some of them are about wampas, or nonsensical euphemisms for sex, drugs, and rock and roll, like "Toshi station" and "power converters."

    Dialog is one of your most powerful tools. It's highlighted with a pair of quotation marks, it is often offset with whitespace, and it tends to take up less room on the page than your exposition, which means that readers almost always read dialog. (Fun fact: they will skim pretty much everything else!) This makes dialog prime real estate for anything important that you want to say to the reader. Keep your blathering to a minimum. If a little bit of color commentary is important to a character or to the setting, sure, go for it! ...But don't waste my time with a grocery list unless those groceries are about to get MacGuyvered into a miraculous escape or a bomb for someone's garage.

    None of this is realistic in the least.

    Spend a little time watching Bob Ross on YouTube. He has not once painted a tree, or a rock, or a bush, or a lake, or a mountain, or a cloud, or a sky, or anything at all. He just bangs the brush on the canvas with the right technique, and your brain will tell you that you are looking at all of those things because you've seen them before, and the illusion works. Your objective in writing is very similar: you want to give your reader the illusion of realism (we call it "verisimilitude" when we have extra $64 dollar words lying around). but your writing needs to be better than real.
    Last edited: Jul 27, 2017


Discussion in 'Articles' started by archer88i, Jul 24, 2017.

    1. Wreybies
      This is more properly an article. Moved to the Articles area, else it will just roll aware into the obscurity of Page 2 of Creative Writing.
    2. jannert
      Well said. Illusion of realism. I like that. I think you're spot-on about what makes good dialogue.

      However, I am one of those people who isn't all that crazy about dialogue, or rather too much dialogue. Why? Because it goes by too fast.

      Page after page of nothing but dialogue does get galloped through, but how much gets retained? If there's nothing to break up a wall of dialogue and no input (via the author) of what is happening during the dialogue exchange or what the speakers are thinking while the conversation is happening, then it's too pepped up to sink in.

      I don't know when it started, but there now seems to be a fashion for writing stories using as much dialogue as possible—we're urged to present a story using mostly dialogue 'because it's faster and people keep turning pages.'

      Think of it like a movie. How much fun would a movie be if all the characters ever did was talk? No moving around, no moments of quiet, no setting of scene, no facial expressions, no interactions, battles, dances, journeys etc. Just yappity yappity yappity yappity yappity yappity yappity yap—the end. How enjoyable would this experience be for the moviegoers? If you think this would not be enjoyable, then don't put your readers through the same experience.

      Too much dialogue is like living on coca cola. Yeah, it'll pep you up and pass through your system quickly, but you'll be nutritionally deficient unless you eat and drink plenty of other more substantial things as well. Stuff that sticks to the ribs and makes you strong. You can't live on soda pop.
      Last edited: Jul 26, 2017
      123456789 likes this.
    3. archer88i
      Wreybies: you're kind of assuming it doesn't deserve to roll away into obscurity. :p

      jannert: Too much dialog is a terrible thing! And that's one of the reasons I didn't think about submitting this as an article in the first place--it's very incomplete. Overusing dialog drastically undermines its effectiveness, and that's just one of a pile of different things that I didn't have time to cover when I made this post.

      I don't read enough to keep up with present fashions in writing, so I can't offer much comment regarding the idea that we're writing more dialog now than we once did. For anyone who wants to see it done well, though--even if I don't personally believe that it's as effective as decent exposition--Isaac Asimov is famous for throwing his descriptions and his actions into someone's dialog. Not having read many of his fourteen thousand jillion published works, I can primarily recommend Foundation.
      Fernando.C and jannert like this.
    4. OJB
      I agree with the above. Robert Mckee pushes the idea that you should be able to write an entire story without the use of any Dialogue; in fact, I use this idea in my own writing. I write the entire first draft with no dialogue (I do jot down their thoughts) and during my second draft I come back and start putting dialogue in.
      Seven Crowns likes this.
    5. Thundair
      I have mixed emotions on dialog. Some stories read like a scripted reality show, without small talk.
      Other stories I've read were dialog free, and wearisome. The reason may be all the years of having to read contracts and technical manuals. Still I'm a fan of small talk in certain situations.
    6. BayView
      I love dialogue and use it a lot. Sure, it needs to serve a purpose, just like everything else in the book needs to serve a purpose, but I think with dialogue it's really easy to get a lot across with not that many words. A single phrase can contribute to plot, setting, characterization, theme, mood... very efficient.
    7. Odile_Blud
      Don't know how much I agree with the profanity thing. And this is coming from my view as a reader more than as a writer. I think that, if you have a character (or even a bunch of characters) who grew up in an area where there would be a lot of profanity, I think it only makes the character believable to have them use it. Of course, this will be dependent on what you're writing and who you're writing for, but it seems a bit silly to me to have characters who were born and raised in "the hood", so to say, and they very rarely drop an f-bomb. This is my opinion, so it doesn't go for everyone, but I like characters to be written honestly, and if you have a cast that would be cussing like a bunch of sailors in real life, I think they need to be written that way.
      NathanRoets likes this.
    8. archer88i
      Odile: in comparison to what?

      If all your characters are in the hood, or all of your characters are sailors, then what difference does it make? What are we contrasting with? This is kind of how Tom Clancy's work comes off: everyone spews profanity all the time, and no one notices.

      Like dialog itself, expletives lose their punch when you use them too often. Your character may not care about that, but you're the writer. Its your job to preserve their voice.
    9. Odile_Blud
      I haven't read Tom Clancy, so maybe I'm understanding your statement wrong. I was referring to stories with characters that, in reality, would do a lot of cussing. If you have characters that would cuss a lot, I think it is honest to them character to have the use profanity.

      I don't think that profanity necessarily needs to be used to convey emotion or a powerful expression. I think they can just be words that the character uses a lot because that's the language they grew up with.

      Now maybe I'm misunderstanding you. I don't know, but that's just my take.
      Last edited: Jul 31, 2017
    10. BayView
      It's also a bit weird to use Tom Clancy as an example of someone writing poorly. I mean, I don't think I've ever read more than one of his books, but clearly he's got a pretty huge audience who don't have a problem with his writing...
    11. archer88i
      I never said Tom Clancy was bad. I said he uses profanity so much that it becomes practically invisible--devoid of emotional impact, which is what I'm warning against here. If you want profanity to be invisible (which was Clancy's goal because that was a part of the tone of his writing), then do exactly that.

      Writing is about controlled effect. You are God. You make the decision.
      NathanRoets likes this.
    12. Chris Before
      Chris Before
      I found this article interesting and helpful. It is always useful to reflect on what and how we write with a little steer from some guidelines. Like most commentators, breaking the guidelines and treading one's own path is fun and creates a personal style. Sometimes it works and sometimes it don't. Working within the guidelines may be safer and more sure-footed. Treading across the guidelines may be risky and more likely to fail, but when it works for us as individuals, much more fun. And when it works well, re-orientates the guidelines, our world and view. The key point is, if our readers like the work, find it interesting and want more, it works.

Share This Page

  1. This site uses cookies to help personalise content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register.
    By continuing to use this site, you are consenting to our use of cookies.
    Dismiss Notice