Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Dialogue: Let's be real.

Nothing turns me off a story more than poor dialogue. It has to sound real. When reading a story (be it a partial submitted here or a published novel) I can forgive the author for a lot of things. If the dialogue is unconvincing, it is very hard to win me back.

Let’s be clear. Things that make me cringe:

-dialogue that is obviously only used to explain something to the reader. Authors often don’t give the reader enough credit. The reader is smart. The reader can figure it out. The reader also knows when dialogue is contrived, not to portray a conversation between characters, but to spell something out. That’s not to say you should never use dialogue to explain something—used correctly, this can be a great tool. But you have to do it subtly.

For example, the WRONG way to set up a situation:

“Josh and Mary are together again. I don’t think that’s going to work. He cheated on her before and people don’t really change.”

“I think you’re right. Mary is too dependent on him, too. She’s only going to end up in trouble again.”

A better way to say this could go something like:

“Mary’s back with Josh.”

“Seriously? God, I thought she was rid of him.”

“I know, me too. I swear, he smiles and she goes running back.”

People’s thoughts on a subject can be just as (or more) informative than straight information. In the second example, we already know the speakers don’t like Josh, and that Mary is infatuated. We don’t need all the information at once; it can come out later that they were separated because he cheated.

-being too formal. Specifically, the absence of contractions. This one really gets to me. Use contractions! When people talk, they use contractions (unless there is a specific reason for them not to—if they learned English as a second language, for example). If it’s a really formal setting, that’s fine. But in day to day speech, people do not say things like “We would love it if you would come. We will wait for you so that you do not get lost.” Instead, say something like “We’d love for you to come. We’ll wait for you so you don’t get lost.” It’s a simple thing, but it makes a huge difference.

There are more, of course, but those are two big ones and this post is getting long. So before you send your baby out for other people to judge, go back to the dialogue. I know it’s hard to be objective, but try to imagine the conversation outside of the story. Could you hear two of your friends having the conversation? Two random people on the street? If not, the reader probably can’t hear the characters having it, and it’s going to disrupt your story. The story you've slaved over deserves better than to be dismissed because of awkward dialogue.

Good luck!



AE said...

I just had the same thought yesterday as I was reading through a book. All I could think was, "Come on! Are you serious?" But what really annoyed me and seemed too forced was the overuse of catch-all names like "Girl". For ex, "Hey girl... " followed by "Girl, you just need to..." blah blah blah. It happens a lot with Dude as well, but for some reason I find that word more forgivable. My lesson from that novel was: don't use what they say (ie words like girl, chick, etc), but the subject matter of what they are saying to define your character. I hope that make sense. Do you agree at all?

AE said...

Also what are your thoughts on kinda vs. kind of?

Glynis Peters said...

I dislike a huge paragraph of dialogue describing minute details. It can make my eyes glaze over.

I tried to remember this when writing my wip and--phew! My beta readers paid me a compliment, they all said my dialogue needed no edits.

the Interns said...

AE- I definitely agree. While characters can be defined by the way they talk, and some of them are going to have little unique habits (like using the words girl or dude frequently), there's a line. Overuse of colloquialisms like that really bogs down the script and the flow of the story.
As to kinda vs. kind of, it depends on who's talking, and what the situation is (I assume we're still talking about dialogue here). It all comes back to the same idea; write dialogue the way people talk. If your character is more likely to say kinda (which is perfectly reasonable), say kinda.
The other thing is first person narration--if a character that would say kinda while talking is a first person narrator, it can be okay to use kinda there, too. Narration can be tricky, because it should (often) be a bit more formal the regular dialogue, but it should also still reflect the character's voice.
If it's a third-person narrator and/or a formal situation, generally go with kind of (since those are actual words, haha).

Glynis- Congrats! Glad I could help :)