ANOTHER POST ON THE SUBJECT OF DIALOG?

Sure, why not?

Fanny Ellsworth, editor of Ranch Romances was quoted in “Magazine Editor Warns Against Loss of Originality”:

Do you put thought on your dialogue—to make it sound natural without making it full of queerly spelled words that will take the reader’s mind from the story? Do you remember such little things as having the girl say, conversationally. “I’d love to” instead of the stiffer “I would like to?”

Well, do you?

Whether you spell it dialog or dialogue, characters talking matters—it matters a great deal in any genre of fiction. I’ve written a lot about it here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook and stand by those earlier posts. When I sat down to write this I started thinking about what else I might not have covered here on the subject and thought I’d flip back and add a handful of links to a few previous posts on dialog… only to find that I have written a lot on that subject.

I broke down the basics of what I mean by “Living Dialog” here then went on to create a seminar on the subject, which you can find as a Writer’s Digest Tutorial of the same name.

I get into dialog attribution in “Basic Training” and more on the nuts and bolts of how to punctuate a line of dialog in “ ‘Some Basic Dialog Tips,” Phil Suggested,” and the slightly angrier “Learn This Stuff Right Now or Stop Writing.” Even if you’re sure you know what you’re doing, those are worth a look-see.

And speaking of dialog attribution, on the subject of adverbs, Elmore Leonard said:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

I more or less agree with him in “Caution: Adverbs Crossing.” To me it’s a matter of the difference between show (tell us what the speaker’s face looks like or some other gesture or cue that conveys their emotions) and tell (he cautioned cautiously).

In his book Making Shapely Fiction Jerome Stern wrote:

You want your readers to think, I could hear that person talking. The more you capture the rhythms of speech, its hesitancies, its phrases, its long, winding, run-on sentences, and its non-sentences, the closer you come to the feel of a real person. You’ve made the readers believe in the character. You don’t have to be grammatical or correct if your speaker isn’t. The character is talking, not you. Let that distinctive voice come through.

But detecting those “rhythms of speech” can take effort. Listening to how the people around you talk is Dialog 101 for any author. I touched on that in “Flashes of Inspiration: Stealing From Your Own Experience.” Sometimes what you hear from other people can get a bit under your skin, like “I Mean, Enough Already,” but it’s still worth trying, even if you can’t necessarily make out much in a loud coffee shop full of fast-talking caffeinated moms, which I bemoan in “Exercise Two… Attempted.”

Vladimir Nabokov travelled by car across America, almost obsessively, in part to collect butterflies, but also to collect American English. In “Little Nothings: Nabokov’s Road Notes,” Elsa Court wrote:

In the ten years following his arrival in the United States, his general approach to reading and assimilating his American surroundings—especially the unfamiliar and ever-shifting American slang—led to a remarkable linguistic metamorphosis: American parlance is reflected across  Lolita, and marks the author’s conscious transfer from Russian émigré to American, fully fluent in the culture and its linguistic ticks.

But for months before Nabokov began work on [Lolita], he took notes. Sitting at the back of public buses, he jotted down teenage slang, setting it aside for his unfortunate heroine.

“Slang” can take many forms, and some common dialog issues come from a tendency to be too formal. For instance, unless you want them to be irritating, don’t force your characters to add the name of the person their talking to to the beginning or end of every sentence, which is what I call “used car salesman dialog” in “Some Dialog Tips: We Know Who He’s Talking To.” In any case, you will likely notice that people do not tend to use you will or do not when you’ll and don’t are right there waiting for them, because “Contractions Aren’t Bad.” This goes for archaic forms that pop up in fantasy a lot, too. If ye feel ye absolutely must drag thy readers through archaic usage, at least try to get it right, and I’ll get ye started in “The Forsooth File.”

I even wrote about when not to write dialog in “What Not to Say” Jerome Stern backs me up on at least some of this, also in Making Shapely Fiction:

Some writers use too much direct dialogue. When you use direct quotation you imply that what’s being said and how it’s said are important. If the characters talk on and on but they’re not talking about anything significant, nothing dramatic is happening, and the language isn’t distinctive, readers’ interest flags. Narrative momentum falters. Too much dialogue also flattens the emotional landscape. If characters talk four pages about their omelet and four pages about their divorce, major scenes and minor scenes feel pretty much alike.

Maybe the best advice for writing dialog is to just relax, and let your characters do the same, which I go into more detail on in “De-bullet Point Your Dialog.” Still, the one I most want everyone to read and embrace is “Don’t Write Accents Phonetically,” cuz eyz n’t lahk its wenn ya duh thet.

—Philip Athans

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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2 Responses to ANOTHER POST ON THE SUBJECT OF DIALOG?

  1. Dawn Ross says:

    I had to find another editor when she tried to correct grammar in the dialogues – I prefer spelling it dialogue rather than dialog. 😛 😉

  2. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writers Links | No Wasted Ink

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