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  1. Philliggi

    Philliggi Member

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    My dialogue is wooden

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by Philliggi, Dec 16, 2018.

    I'm currently working through my first edit and I feel like I'm getting somewhere, pushing the creases out of the text to make it a smooth flowing piece of work.
    The one thing that's not working for me is the bits in the speech bubbles. It all sounds sort of wooden.
    I know what needs to be said, but when I write it it's a bit flat. How do you guys go about writing dialogue?
    Feelings and thoughts are a breeze but I'm struggling with the structure of conversations. What order to divulge information, and which characters to say which nuggets of information.
    Let me give you an example. A major incident in the story has just happened and four characters come together to discuss what's happened and how to move forward. Much of what's said is opinion and so technically could be said by any one of those present. How do you go about structuring it all? It's stumped me
     
  2. BayView

    BayView Huh. Interesting. Contributor

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    I see two possible issues with your dialogue, as you're describing it.

    One is the idea of dialogue as a tool for conveying information. This can be effective, but it can also be a bit of a trap, leading to characters "expositing" rather than speaking naturally. If dialogue is being used to convey information, it's important that the conveyance be to other characters, with the reader just eavesdropping. As soon as the dialogue is for the benefit of the reader, I think it can start to feel really unnatural.

    The other thing I wonder about is the idea that because something's opinion, it could be said by any character present. If your characters are that interchangeable, and if they all share the same perspectives and opinions, are they all necessary? Even if they're necessary to the story, are they necessary to the scene? Dialogue between two characters tends to be way easier to write effectively than dialogue between multiple characters, so if there's a way to cut a couple characters out of the scene, I'd do it.

    This is all based on traditional novel writing. It occurs to me now that your "speech bubbles" may not have been figurative speech. Possibly you're actually writing a graphic novel or comic. If so, you can probably disregard at least the second point, above. A lot of what make multi-character dialogue difficult in text is probably more straightforward in graphic form.
     
    Last edited: Dec 16, 2018
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  3. Hammer

    Hammer Contributor Contributor

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    Here's a thought.

    You're in the pub with some friends. Someone makes a disparaging remark about the president of the United States

    One of your friends shakes her head and says 'He's a complete bell-end. Utter wanker.'
    Another nods, 'He really is a horse's arse.'
    A third agrees; 'I don't know how he could have conned half the electorate like that; his policies are of straw.'

    They have all said the same thing. The first has shown herself to be fairly "of the people", the second has been a little more middle class about it, and the third has at least considered why he, or she, doesn't approve of the president.

    Know your characters. Go to the pub with them. What do they say?
     
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  4. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    say your dialogue out loud as you write it and only use enough tags and beats to let the reader know who is talking you don't need them on every line

    "Fuck that was some wild shit" said bob
    "Yeah who knew Penguins were carnivorous" Larry agreed
    "What do we do now"
    "Fuck if I know. Ask Chad, he's supposed to be in charge of this abortion"
    "Chad...Chad you deaf twat" Bob shouted. "where the hell is he ?"
    "Sorry if I was too busy saving the day to wipe your arse" Chad swaggered into the ice cave covered in blood and feathers "What do you want ?"
    "Which way do we go now?"
    "Which way do you think Bob ? North."
    "For fucks sake Chad" Sue said speaking for the first time "We're at the south pole, every way is north"
     
  5. Thundair

    Thundair Contributor Contributor

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    Several things I've picked up on this forum. Make it conversational not every question is answered and there are a lot of word-whiskers that help identify the character. I have also used a text to speech program and if it sounds like shit it probably is.
     
  6. Iain Sparrow

    Iain Sparrow Banned Contributor

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    As long as your characters are lumberjacks, or perhaps carpenters, it's all right if the dialogue is wooden. If not though, get in the habit of reading the work of writers who do dialogue particularly well. Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman I like, Philip Pullman too, better yet Mary Doria Russell. Of the dead writers, I especially enjoy Elmore Leonard and Douglas Adams and the effortless way they handle dialogue. The best advice is to figure out how the masters do it, and then do what they do. If as already mentioned you're writing a graphic novel, well, there's no such thing as good dialogue in those things.
     
  7. Philliggi

    Philliggi Member

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    No it's not a graphic novel, speech bubbles was just a term of phrase.

    Picked up some good tips here, especially like the pub comment and the text to speech programme.

    Most of the story dialogue is 1 to 1 so as you say is easier and I can handle that, but with this post I'm thinking about one particular scene where it's inevitable all 4 characters would be present. It's the aftermath of a death so it's a sort of 'what the hell happened and where do we go from here' kind of thing. They also live in a world where what's going on is the only thing that would be on their minds. Everyone's business is everyone else's business and each person's goal is ultimately very similar. Kind of like hunger games or maze runner.

    Some useful tips here. Thank you
     
  8. Shenanigator

    Shenanigator Has the Vocabulary of a Well-Educated Sailor. Supporter Contributor

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    If your dialogue sounds wooden, get up and move around the room and act it out in character. I’m serious. People move. They don’t sit or stand still, even if they’re focused on what the other person is saying. Acting out the dialogue is a trick I learned a while back when a team of screenwriters rented the apartment downstairs from me to use as their writing space. You could hear them moving all through the apartment speaking the dialogue as they wrote. I tried it, and the dialogue in my book improved immediately.

    Usually, I only have to pantomime it, but if something isn’t flowing, or if I want to try a couple of different ways for a character to say something, I say it aloud. Yes, you will feel like a fool, but no one will see you. Far better to feel foolish behind the writing room door than to have readers think it.
     
  9. JLT

    JLT Contributor Contributor

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    Or you could "cast" the story with the actors that you think exemplify the characters, and write the dialog the way you think those actors might improvise. I've found that useful ... the detective in one of my stories was inspired by Claude Lebel, the French policeman in "Day of the Jackal" (the original movie, not the sucky remake), and I just gave my imaginary Michael Lonsdale the part and told him to to it the way he did with Lebel. The trick doesn't work all the time, but at least it gives you a start.
     
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  10. jannert

    jannert Who? Whooo? Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think the key to good dialogue is personality. If you are certain of your characters' personalities, you will instinctively know how they will speak and the kinds of things they will say. Think of your own friends and acquaintances, for example. I presume they don't all talk the same and say interchangeable things in identical tones of voice ...even if they are close family or close friends.

    If you're out on a hike with your family and just discover you've all taken the wrong turn, what is your brother likely to say? Would it be the same thing your sister would say? What about your mom? Your dad? What would YOU say? Maybe, for the sake of exercise, substitute each of your characters for somebody you actually know very well. (Not a celebrity, but a friend or relative or colleague.) Then write the dialogue. You may well find that the different personalities suddenly jump out at you.

    As far as using dialogue to convey information, @BayView is spot-on. If you want it to sound natural, make sure the speaker is conveying it to another character who hasn't heard it all before. And don't forget to include the listener's reaction as well, if you can. They can ask questions, which allows your initial speaker to convey even more information—but the questions and reactions help to break up the wad of 'information.' Again, pretend it's a conversation you're having with a friend, or relative or teacher or boss or colleague. What would get said? What would get emphasized? What would be assumed and not mentioned? Is the information welcome or unwelcome? Is it controversial? Sensible? Interesting? Scary? Your listener's reactions can help make this sort of thing come to life.
     
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2018
  11. Nariac

    Nariac Contributor Contributor

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    It's important to remember that everyone wants something out of a conversation. Keeping this in mind can help prevent the situation where your dialogue looks like a table tennis match. Note down what each contributor to a conversation wants if it helps, and refer to that as you make your way through the dialogue.

    This may lead to a situation where one character takes the conversation off on a tangent and another character might react with silent thought, and a third might then get angry at the tangent and then the fourth gets the conversation back on track, but in a direction HE wants, and so on and so forth.
     
  12. big soft moose

    big soft moose The Moderating Moose Staff Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    another thing that can lead to boring dialogue is writing all the small talk that people make in real life... its boring in real life and more so on the page - if you absolutely must have it this is a place for tell don't show, ie " I sat and listened to our small talk getting teenier and teenier" or "We bullshitted for a while about where we'd been and who we knew"
     
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  13. exweedfarmer

    exweedfarmer Contributor Contributor

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    There's usually a whole lot of talking and very little listening going on in any conversation. Telling the story, you want to get on with it but a person in real life just wants to be heard above all. They want to get noticed. No two are an intellectual match, nor is it likely that any of your characters would admit that he/she was the dumb one. Put yourself in the head of that character and just let their mouth run. The dialogue will flow. Now, if the reader will like it or not is another question.
     
  14. Cogito

    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Also, and sometimes this is even MORE revealing, what do they NOT say? What about the guy who doesn't want to get into a political gripefest? What about the guy who's ambivalent about thr President? What about the guy who dislikes speaker #1 more than he dislikes the President? What about the guy who's just watching other people's responses, seeing who are the parrots, who are the thinkers, who are the one-uppers, etc?

    Try to capture some of the crowd dynamics too. Who sticks close to whom, both physically and philosophically? Who is the Mediator? Who is the Escalator? Who seems to know something the others don't, and is she full of shit?
     
  15. Rzero

    Rzero Contributor Contributor

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    Crud. I left this sitting on my screen all day. I forget to hit send sometimes. People hate texting with me. Sorry if this is all redundant now. I'm posting it anyway. :)
    This could be your whole issue. If your characters are too similar or ill-defined, it can be difficult to tell them apart for you or the reader. Think about what makes them unique and how their reactions differ. That will color the dialog and dictate who says what. One might react more rationally than the rest and therefore focus on facts and solutions, one might react more emotionally than the rest and have trouble focusing on anything practical at all. Your characters don't have to be personality stereotypes or even be wildly different from each other for their experiences to inform the way they behave in conversation. Figure out how each might compare a given situation to their varied experiences, even if there are only cursory similarities.
    I couldn't agree more. Characters explaining things to each other that they all already know is the worst kind of exposition. It's like bad sitcom writing. If you can't decide which character should explain which things to the reader, you might need to reevaluate whether any of them would actually say those things to each other in the first place if we weren't listening in.
    I don't know if this would work for everyone, but as a film junkie, I use this is a trick often, and I receive a lot of compliments on my dialogue. Don't get me wrong. I have my own issues writing, but characterized speech doesn't seem to be one of them. Imagining actors, especially in more stylized characters helps me give each voice its own verbal nuances. It sounds like a cheat, and maybe it is. It could easily be used as such, but unless you're directly copying every mannerism of an Al Pacino character or anything as obvious and specific as that, you're probably good. It will still be your character and will likely evolve in different directions than any of that actor's signature pieces, though that is something to watch out for and strictly avoid. Don't rewrite characters, obviously. Or dialogue, for that matter. I once caught myself accidentally writing "Shut up, Donnie," and one beat later, "Shut the f*ck up, Donnie!" It had nothing to do with John Goodman or the big Lebowski. It happened entirely organically, but if I hadn't realized what I'd done and fixed it, it would have killed the character, the scene and the entire book for any reader who'd seen the movie.
     
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  16. Shenanigator

    Shenanigator Has the Vocabulary of a Well-Educated Sailor. Supporter Contributor

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    I think it probably depends on whether the characters come to the writer fully formed in terms of looks and mannerisms. For a writer who "builds" characters or whose characters arrive in a form similar to casting sheet requirements for a role, that technique would probably work very well. For a writer whose characters arrive looking and acting like fully-formed people, the writer would have to get rid of everything they know about the character's physicality before proceeding. I wouldn't be able to do it, but maybe somone else could.
     
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  17. Rzero

    Rzero Contributor Contributor

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    That makes sense. I mostly use it when a character is particularly quirky or has a thick accent and uses colloquialisms, you know, characters that I need to hear clearly in my head in order to write them authentically and with confidence. By necessity, therefore, these are usually characters who are already well defined in my head, and the actor or a particular performance just falls into place. It's usually about capturing cadence and vocabulary, maybe creating some verbal ticks. It's never about matching character traits, especially physical ones.
     
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  18. Shenanigator

    Shenanigator Has the Vocabulary of a Well-Educated Sailor. Supporter Contributor

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    Ah. I get what you're saying. Now that you put it that way, I did something similar to learn the syntax and speech patterns of my Russian MC. I watched YouTube videos of a Russian guy of my character's age, and I refer back to them if I'm not sure how my MC would say something in English...kind of listening to "learn a language" courses, except he's teaching my MC to speak English like him. Something like that is doable regardless of the character's physicality.

    Another thing that might add some dimension to dialogue is to follow Humprey Bogart's advice on acting a scene: ask yourself what the character was doing before the scene, and how that might color their part of the conversation.
     
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