Write Wow!

Writing tips and techniques from the publisher of Swimming Kangaroo Books. Send your 3-page writing sample to be critiqued to dindy@swimmingkangaroo.com with the word "critique" in the subject heading. Your submission will be critiqued on the blog, but your name will not be used unless you give permission.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Raven Only Needed One Word, The Rest of Us Need Dialogue

"So I said that he was a big fat ninny head, and he said I was a stupid dodo, and I called him a purple people eater, and he said I should go to heck and-"

I suppose I should thank Ernest Hemingway for all the writing that comes in to me with long strings of really boring dialogue that goes on forever and ever and ever. Hemingway could get away with it because he was a genius and he knew how to craft those long pages of
dialogue into the story. Sadly, very few of us are Hemingways (actually I've never really cared for Hemingway so I'm not that sad about it.)

If you have characters in your book or story, they probably talk to each other, which means you have dialogue. (Actually, even if they don't talk, they probably communicate, but that's another blog.) So for this blog about writing dialogue, let's start by talking about the mechanics of dialogue. First of all, very rarely is it okay to have more than one person talking in the same paragraph:
John said, "Marsha, I love you," and Marsha said, "John, I love you too."

Not only is this lousy dialogue, but it needs to be broken up into two paragraphs. Very rarely is it okay to have more than one speaker in the same paragraph. One example of a time when it might be okay is when you want to convey that the action is happening so fast that individual quotes cannot be distinguished:
With a crash a large fist crunched into the side of my head, and I was falling
to the ground. someone screamed, "The king is hit," as another voice howled,
"Die you fiend!" I heard the swords clashing and grunts and screams of men and
horses as my body folded onto the ground, my shield bouncing off my face as an
additional insult. The last thing I heard before the blessed black overtook me
was my beloved Herb crying, "No! No! Carolyn come back!"

Another thing about the mechanics of dialogue is to remember your attributions. This does not mean that you have to put "He said" or "She said" after every single quote. But you do have to find a way of helping the reader to keep track of who is speaking so s/he does not have to count backwards through several lines of dialogue to figure out who is saying what. As a general rule, I would make sure that you have an attribution about once in every three lines of dialogue. If you have more than two people talking, then you must find a way of attributing the dialogue or the reader will be hopelessly confused.

To write good dialogue, you need to listen to conversations. I am a shameless eavesdropper-- I like to sit myself down on a bench in the mall and listen to the flow of conversations around me. I enjoy hearing what the people in the booth behind me at a restaurant are saying, and even like listening to one side of a phone conversation to try to imagine what's happening on the other end of the line. After I listen to the conversations, I try to recreate them, but then I go a step further, because, let's face it, a lot of daily conversation is replete with, "Uh" and "Ya know" and grunts and other odd little sounds that don't really make for scintillating dialogue. I listen to conversations to get an idea of the flow, of how people actually talk, but then I examine dialogue in books to see how authors take that flow and turn it into good, solid writing.

I have found that it helps to sometimes just write a script of my characters talking to each other. In scripts, you can't afford to have any wasted lines-- every word uttered has to move the story along somehow. I also find that it helps to read my dialogue aloud-it's even better if I can get a partner who will read it with me. If, as I am reading, the words don't flow easily, something is wrong.

One last thing-- it's okay to use the word "said" as an attributive. I know that we were all taught in school to try to use something more descriptive than "said" but, trust me, "said" is a perfectly good word. It's non-obtrusive and doesn't get in the way of the dialogue. You can do it, because I SAID so.


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