LESSON The Art of Dialogue

Discussion in 'REFINING WRITING' started by Jorick, Feb 22, 2015.

  1. This workshop is sort of a sequel to The Mechanics of Dialogue, which went over how punctuation works with dialogue. To continue the metaphor from that workshop's introduction, I've supplied you with the canvas and brushes and bottles of paint, so you can at least sling paint at the canvas. This workshop is intended to help you pretty things up and make good use of those tools, so hopefully you can go on to paint a masterpiece. However, do keep in mind that, just as with paintings, there will never be objectively perfect dialogue that everyone will love. Writing is an art, and like any art that means it's very open to subjective interpretations and criticism. This workshop is meant to steer you in the right direction with some helpful techniques and guidelines, not to make you into the next Michelangelo. Just don't expect any miracles out of me here and we'll be fine.

    He Said, She Said - Making Quote Attributions Fancy

    While quote attributions (a fancy term for the things like "he said" that indicate who is speaking) aren't directly a part of dialogue, they're extremely important to making it pleasant to read. Have you ever read a long stretch of dialogue where the author just uses "said" and switches out names and pronouns to show who's speaking? That gets real boring and repetitive after a while. That's not to say you should never use "he said" and such, because a lot of the time a character will just be saying something, not murmuring or growling or shouting or something else you could pull off of a synonym list, so you might as well use the right word for what's being done. The point here is that you should change it up wherever it doesn't detract from the dialogue itself. Quote attributions should be used to clarify things and give the reader a better feeling or mental image of what's going on, so it's a major problem if they become a distraction or don't actually match up with what's being said.

    The primary and most common way to bring some variety to your quote attributions is by making use of synonyms for the word "said." The major thing to keep in mind with synonyms is that just because it's listed as being synonymous with "said" that does not mean that is all it means, but that's something I'll go over in detail in the next section of this workshop. That said, there are a bunch of resources you can use to find synonyms. Minibit has a Resource thread here in the Institute that comes with a list plus some discussion on the use of these synonyms. This site gives a nice list sorted by how they ought to be used, plus each one comes with a clear definition. This image lists 234 possible synonyms for "said." That ought to be enough for anyone, but a Google search for "synonyms for said" could find you more if you so desire.

    Another rather common way to avoid overloading readers with "said" repetition is to simply give the line of dialogue and trust that the reader is following along closely enough to not get confused. This is primarily useful for conversations between two people. If two characters are talking back and forth for a little bit and there's a predictable pattern set up, then you can drop the quote attributions altogether for a bit so long as you don't throw any curve balls in there (like adding a third speaker out of nowhere) that might confuse the reader. If you've got nothing interesting to do with your attributions and it'd just be a boring back and forth of he said, she said, he said, she said, then just cut the unnecessary ones out to reduce repetition.

    The third and final (at least so far as this workshop is concerned) way to switch up your quote attributions is to replace them with an action or description. It's an extremely versatile tool that can make otherwise ordinary dialogue come to life and interest readers. There are many ways it can be done, far too many to go over in exhaustive detail, so here's a quick example of how descriptive or active attributions can replace boring ones and dramatically change the tone and meaning of the dialogue.

    "Don't leave me all alone in here," he said.
    "Don't leave me all alone in here." His eyes were wide as saucers and his skin shone white as bone in the dim light.
    He pulled a knife out of his pocket and flicked the blade open, grinning crookedly. "Don't leave me all alone in here."

    By the way, notice how in that last one it was clear who was speaking even though it was just a description of an action? An indirect lesson to take from that is that it's generally a bad idea to describe the actions of a character while someone else is speaking, especially in the middle of their speech. It can be noted as the speaker watching or noticing someone else doing a thing, but don't just throw "Jack sat down" into the middle of Laura speaking; it'll make the reader naturally assume that some of the nearby speaking is coming from Jack, since his action was attached to it, so that sort of thing can cause a lot of confusion. Just as you move to a new paragraph for a second speaker to make it clear who is speaking, it's generally a good idea to keep another character's actions out of a speaker's paragraph for the same reason.

    He Enunciated, She Declared - Thesaurus Use and Abuse

    Employing a storehouse of words is capable of being advantageous, however lackadaisical and disproportionate handling may decimate the totality of the work.

    Or, in plainer words, using a thesaurus can be helpful for finding words, but careless and excessive use can ruin everything. Unless a character is a pretentious ass or a walking encyclopedia, it's probably unrealistic for them to be using words like "lackadaisical." Most people simply don't know those kinds of words, and few who are aware of them would actually use them in everyday speech. If you've never seen or heard a word before cracking open a thesaurus and seeing it there, odds are decent that it isn't part of the common vocabulary so you should be careful about using it. If a reader has to choose between hitting the dictionary every dozen words or muddling through in a haze of confusion, then they're almost certainly not going to enjoy your dialogue. It is almost always better to use a simple word that the majority of English speakers will understand than to risk confusion with a possibly archaic synonym, because confusion is the bane of immersion.

    Another major cause of thesaurus abuse is a misunderstanding of connotations. Two words may technically have the same meaning, but they'll frequently have added layers of meaning that a thesaurus just doesn't care about. Cackle and giggle are synonyms because they're both just another word for laugh; fluent English speakers should know that in reality a cackle is a harsh and cruel sort of laugh, but a giggle is a cute kind of laughter associated mostly with young girls. A girl laughing at a joke her crush just said probably should not be described as a cackling, and a mad scientist who just finished describing his plans for world domination probably won't be giggling. If you aren't sure of the nuances of a word, either avoid using it or go search it up on a variety of dictionaries and pay attention to secondary meanings and stuff following "usually" or "especially." For example, the definition of cackle is "to laugh especially in a harsh or sharp manner," and the definition of giggle is "to laugh with repeated short catches of the breath" or "to laugh in a nervous or childlike way."

    The best way to use a thesaurus is as a reminder for words you actually know but can't recall at the moment, not to find totally new words to use. For instance, when writing the above example I was trying to think of a word that meant a quiet and disrespectful laugh, and checking the thesaurus reminded me that "snicker" and "snigger" are both words that exist and have such a meaning. There's no hard and fast rule for how familiar you have to be with a word to be able to use it safely, but a good rule of thumb is that if you were unsure of a word's full meaning before you found it in a thesaurus, then you probably ought to avoid using it without looking it up to make sure you know what's going on, so as to avoid mangling your dialogue. It's similar to using power tools: if you see one lying around and you're not sure how it works, it's better to get some instructions rather than playing with it and risking injuring yourself.

    Shaking Things Up - Varying Sentence Structure To Keep It Interesting

    People vary their sentence structures. It's a natural part of speech. They do it without thought. Simple sentences get boring. Do you see what I'm doing? All of these sentences are short. They all lack complexity. It probably reads strangely. It's stilted and awkward. They all follow proper grammar. There is nothing technically wrong here. It's just rather boring. These sentences should be combined. Mixing them adds variety. Variety keeps the reader interested. Monotony is dull and boring.

    Okay, enough of that. There's an ephemeral quality to writing that is generally referred to as "flow," which is basically how smoothly and naturally something reads. For dialogue, this means that it should read as someone would actually speak. For instance, you can get away with a lot of improper grammar in speech in order to show how someone speaks (like excessive commas and some sentence fragments for someone who's very hesitant and indecisive), and it can definitely work. The reason I'm bringing this up here is that speaking people use sentences of a variety of lengths and constructions, not the same thing over and over again. It can be a problem with longer sentences too, so don't think that you're totally devoid of repetitive structure just because you're using commas. I won't go into the in depth stuff about sentence clause structure, because I can be lazy and link to Wikipedia instead, but it's a good place to start if you want to avoid repetition on a sentence level. Mix in simple, compound, and complex sentences instead of just sticking to one kind and your dialogue will flow a lot better.

    It's Called Dialogue, Not Monologue - Why Long Speeches and Rants Kill Dialogue

    Time for a brief etymology lesson. The suffix '-logue' comes from a Greek word that means "to speak." The prefix 'mono-' comes from a Greek word meaning "single, alone." The prefix 'dia-' comes from a Greek word meaning "across," not two (the prefix for that is 'di-'); this might seem kind of confusing, because "single speech" makes more sense than "across speech," but I have a helpful illustrative metaphor to show why it's fine. Think of a dialogue as two or more people sitting around a circular table and speaking about something. Their words go across the table to get to the other people. However, this little mental image is helpful for things other than explaining why the Greek roots make sense.

    Consider the people around the table having a conversation about some topic. Would it be normal one person go on and on for five minutes while the others sit in total silence, then have another person pick it up and give a huge speech in reply? Unless it's some formal setting, like a debate or speech or presentation, the answer is no. Huge tracts of uninterrupted speech are called monologues; it's a single speaker saying stuff without any interaction from others. This is utterly unnatural for real world dialogue, and doing it in writing does a lot to kill immersion and flow. It's similar to how someone stopping in the middle of a long fight and delivering a speech is really weird and illogical: it halts the interaction and turns into a totally solo action. That's bad to do in dialogue, because it's supposed to be a verbal interaction between multiple parties.

    Keeping It Real - Why Grammar, Manners, and Perfection Kill Dialogue

    Speaking of interaction, you should also make the speakers actually interact. Dialogue should be more than just a simple back and forth of speech. Interruptions and mistakes happen. Prissy perfect speech where everyone takes their turn and speaks with totally proper etiquette is just not how real dialogue happens. In writing people seem to get extraordinarily hung up on the idea of each speaker taking their turn, one after another with no overlap, and that makes things feel very unreal. To use a rather extreme example, here's a fun little clip of some of the awful dialogue from the movie The Room. Ignoring the fact that the lines themselves are garbage, for the majority of the clip they're doing the bland back and forth with no real interruptions, no speaking over one another, just a clean set of responses to one another... until about the last ten seconds. In that last bit they start talking over each other, and they suddenly start to seem like real people instead of poorly designed robots because it injects some actual life and interaction into the dialogue. Interactions in dialogue should be more than simply reacting to the words another person has said, it should also include interruptions, physical actions and responses to them, slips of the tongue, and so on.

    Another problem a lot of people seem to face when writing dialogue is that they seem to be unwilling to make their characters screw up. How often do you misspeak each day? Maybe you say a word incorrectly, or the wrong word entirely, or something that you just didn't mean to say at all sort of slips out. It's just a natural thing that happens to everyone in reality. Why not include it in writing dialogue? Sure, it may seem grammatically incorrect, and it probably is, but this is totally fine because realistic speech almost always trumps grammar (as I already mentioned in the section about sentence structure). Grammar is there to make sure everything is understood, not to be a set of ironclad rules that can never be altered, so as long as understanding is maintained you can do whatever you want. I highly suggest that you include things like speech flubs, self interruptions, and awkward pauses in your list of things you want to do for character speech. Hell, go ahead and add slang, colloquialisms, self-contradictions, and flat out stupidity to that list too. Just like a perfect and flawless character is boring and unrealistic, so too is perfect and flawless speech. Don't be a Mary Sue of dialogue, let your characters screw up and have problems speaking.

    Say It Loud, Say It Proud - The Ultimate Test of Flow and Realism

    Holy crap my section titles are corny.

    Anyway, I've talked about how you can break flow, but I've said nothing about how to make sure your dialogue does flow. It's actually pretty simple. What is dialogue? It's a character speaking. How do you test it to make sure it flows? Actually say the dialogue out loud.

    Whether you're aware of it or not, if you're a fluent English speaker then you're very likely a solid grammar detector, even if you have a lot of problems with writing. You tend to use and listen to speech more often than you read or write, plus there are the extra inflection and physical cues to aid understanding, so you're probably a lot better at telling when spoken words are off in some way than you are at detecting awkward writing. If you're not sure whether a piece of dialogue reads well, say it out loud as you've written it and see if it feels natural to say; make sure you use at least a general approximation of the tone or mood of the speech, because some ways of phrasing or uses of punctuation will be odd in a calm tone but make sense when yelling or having an emotional breakdown. If any of the pauses or words feel awkward, then you should change things to fix it; if you find yourself wanting to pause or add/remove words when speaking, then you should make those changes. If the tone/mood you've written feels wrong and you think it ought to be said another way to make it work, then go ahead and change that too. Basically, say it out loud and make sure it actually seems like a more or less natural thing to say, and make any changes necessary to get it to a state of smoothness.

    Laziness and Pretty Colors - Special Tricks for Forum Roleplay Dialogue

    The medium and intent of the writing can provide you with some extra ways to make your dialogue work. For instance, in TV/movies they don't have to bother with stuff like "he said" or writing out complex actions so the viewer knows what's up, because the speaker is known by face or voice and they can just do the action. Forum roleplaying has a couple tricks worth knowing as well.

    First off, you can totally be lazy and not bother attributing character speech a lot of the time. If you're in a roleplay with just one character, everyone should know who is speaking in your post because it's just that one character under your control. As long as all the speech in your post comes from your character, you can get away with not using any attributions at all. Hell, if it's a long enough bit of speech or there's no post length expectation, you can get away with just giving a couple lines of dialogue with zero non-speech text and it would be fine and totally understood in context. This trick also works nicely for chat roleplaying, for those of you who are into that.

    If you have multiple characters, you can sometimes still get away with it depending on how you like to format your posts. For instance, when I have multiple characters in a roleplay and decide to post for both of them in one go, I still separate them: I put a header saying who I'm writing for first, then I put a header to separate that section from the next character, and so on if I have more than two. The header clearly says whose perspective that section is from, so it can work as a lazy quote attribution for the entire section so long as nobody else speaks in it.

    If there are multiple characters talking in one section of a post, you can apply a color to each character's dialogue and use that as an intuitive attribution. If Character A always has red text for speech and Character B always has grey text, you can go back and forth just switching colors and it will still be perfectly understood. This can be used well for posts where your character is talking to an NPC, where two or more of your characters are interacting, and where you're collaborating with another player on a post. You'll usually want to attribute at least the first speech from each person in each post, in order to set the pattern again in case others forgot who had which color, because the whole point here is to avoid confusion. On that note, you should also be careful about the possibility that someone in your roleplay might be colorblind and have some trouble distinguishing the difference between certain colors, so out of courtesy to them you ought to ask OOC if there are any problems with color usage. You'll also probably want to avoid colors that match the site post background colors (currently grey and white are available, I think), because some folks will have a hard time reading that text.

    If you want to get a little out of hand with it, you can use other formatting options (font, boldface, italics, underline, text background color, and even things like alignment and sub/superscript) to do the same thing as colors accomplish. Colors are usually acceptable, but these other kinds of formatting are pretty likely to annoy people. I don't recommend them, but hey, they're options available to you.

    Stupid Section Title - Final Words

    That's the whole kit and caboodle.

    "But wait," I figuratively hear some of you saying, "you didn't tell us how to write dialogue, you just told us how to avoid some bad things and gave a couple tricks for how to keep it nice and understandable. How am I supposed to know what words to use, and what order to put them in, and what grammar rules I can actually break without completely destroying the language, and-"

    Experience, I say firmly to interrupt the stream of questions. Seriously. There is no better teacher than experience with the language, which is why people say the best way to learn another language is to go live in a culture where that's all they speak. All the grammar lessons and explanations won't do you a bit of good if you have no practical experience in how the language is actually used. My advice on how to improve your core dialogue skills is to go talk to people, be it in real life or over voice chats. Any time you actually talk to people in English, you're practicing your English skills. It may sound stupid, but I'm being completely serious. Go talk to people you've never spoken to before to broaden your horizons if you're worried that you don't have enough experience with using the language. Chat with random people on the bus, buy a microphone and talk to people on chat programs or video games, however you feel like getting it done, just do it. Practical experience is the king of all lessons for any skill, and language is no exception.

    Okay, now I'm actually done. To wrap it all up with that continuing metaphor I've probably overused, you got the brushes and easel and paints from the previous workshop, and now you've gotten a rundown on how you ought to go about slapping paint on that canvas. I've got nothing more for you, so get out there and paint some word pictures.
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