…my mate, thriller Author supreme, Eric J Gates, knows more than just a thing or three about great writing… his new book, PRIMED, is launched as I type, a sequel to the maestro’s terrific, the CULL, the first of which series happens to be on offer FREE right now…
…here’s several excellent scribbling pointers for the rest of we quill-scrapers:
‘Dialogue, that’s what we need!’ she said
Now here’s a thorny subject, if ever there was one.
Should dialogue in novels be real?
A definitive answer?
But first, a word from our Sponsors…
A SUPER, ALL-ENCOMPASSING GOLDEN RULE:
Every scene you write, nay, EVERY SENTENCE, has to do one of two things, at the very least:
It must either move the story forward or reveal character (or both). Never forget this; have it tattooed on your forehead (in reverse) so you can see it in the bathroom mirror every morning before sitting down to write.
And dialogue is no exception.
It can be one of the hardest parts of fiction writing to master. So let’s try to make matters as simple as possible:
Why do we use dialogue?
Essentially there are four reasons:
- Conflict: between characters, to perhaps show how they react to one another – a strong domineering personality against a weaker one, for example. Constantly examine if the conflict playing out is advancing the story though.
- Character: to tell us more about how our characters think and react to the events we create on the page. Care though, you must show this, through speech, not simply tell it (see next chapter). Again, don’t get so involved in developing your character you forget to tell the story.
- Place and/or Time: writers who produce fiction set in bygone times, or those setting their scenes in some futuristic or alien surroundings do this all the time. As an aside, if you get the chance to watch the excellent TV series ‘Ripper Street’, the dialogue there deserves an accolade for dancing the thin line between authentic English from the Victorian period and modern comprehension – it is so well done, the writers must have had to work very hard at it. This is MUCH harder than it looks, and I speak from experience: In ‘Full Disclosure’ I had to write a convincing US Presidential Address to the Nation – not an easy task for a lad from England. In the first book of ‘the CULL’ series I had to write a book within the novel, purportedly written in the late Victorian era and peppered with jargon and idioms that a military man would use. Both exercises took almost two weeks each, and only occupy a couple of pages in their respective novels.
- Exposition: to inform the reader about events or knowledge we are not going to show in detail. Watch out for the dreaded ‘Information Dump’ though.
Now, stop reading for a minute, bookmark this blog, go out, find some people and listen to them. (Do not take part in their conversation, just listen).
Pay special attention to what they say, how they say it, and what they don’t say. How much additional information do they convey with body language or gestures and facial expressions? What about idiomatic expressions? Accents? Dialects? Are they just standing there throwing words at one another or are they doing something at the same time? Is one speaking and the others listening (it will be a group of men – we can only do one thing at a time, they say) or is everyone speaking and listening at once (women – it’s awesome – one of Life’s mysteries).
Now come back to your keyboard and try to write a conversation just like the one you have just observed.
It’s almost impossible, but even if you manage it, compare what you have with any piece of dialogue taken from any novel, of any genre, from an experienced author.
What a difference, right?
So how do they do it?
First, dialogue in fiction is nothing like dialogue in real life. We punctuate our speech with sounds (er, hum, humph, tsk, etc – no the last one wasn’t a sound). You should not do that in your novel unless you want to draw attention to it, and then, use very sparingly.
We also interrupt, constantly. Sometimes, if the participants are very familiar with each other, there won’t be a complete sentence!
We raise and lower our voices, give inflections to words that suggest meaning above and beyond the syllables themselves. You can use UPPERCASE to represent shouting, even BOLD UPPERCASE if things get very loud, but again do not abuse. To imply nuances, italicizing a word may help. Again, don’t go mad. Above all, if you do take this approach, be consistent throughout your novel.
Try not to use phonetic speech representation to simulate an accent – the extra work you put your reader through will most often not be appreciated, and you will destroy any pacing you have built. Ah, you might say, I’ve read your ‘CULL’ books and you’ve got an Irishman there and you use phonetics when he speaks! Yes, you’re right (and thank you for reading my novels) but I’ve stuck to a few, repeated ‘ticks’, such as dropping the ‘g’ at the end of a word, and using ‘yer’ instead of ‘your’ thus conveying what I want without making the reader work for it. I chose this form of writing deliberately to highlight that this character is an anachronism. Also, the character in question doesn’t speak a lot. I wouldn’t dream of having pages of dialogue with this character doing this. In my latest thriller, ‘Primed’, I have a Russian Mafia killer and to highlight his use of English I chose to drop whole words from the sentences. Sounds odd, right? But it works!
Regarding idioms and verbal ticks, in ‘the CULL’, again deliberately so in the first book, I had one character repeatedly employ the phrases ‘dearie’ and ‘my dear’ in her speech. It fit with the age and backstory of her persona. When this character does this in book two (twice) she is immediately called on it by another character – you see, it was a devilish plan to highlight the change that has taken place in the life of that particular protagonist. This was an exceptional case, however; normally I would suggest you keep idioms to a minimum. I even play with this in the same series of novels: one character uses the phrase ‘I assure you’ usually when they are lying through their teeth, and I have another character repeat the phrase when they are expressing total truthfulness to someone important – it was a wink within a wink for the observant.
Always be consistent with your colloquial spelling too. ‘Yeah’ or ‘Yes’ but no other variations.
Finally, regarding what’s said in between the double quotes, always read it aloud. Does it sound right for that character?
Now we come to the fun bit. How many times have you stopped reading a novel and had to count lines to work out who said what?
You shouldn’t overuse the name of the person being addressed inside the quotes:
“Well, Alphonse, I’m sure you understand…”
“Sorry, Billy, old chap, but it’s beyond me.”
“Then perhaps our friend, Wilma here can help you out? What do you say, Wilma?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Billy. Alphonse, may be we could talk in private?”
Try to use the content of what is being said to indicate who is saying what to whom.
This bring us on to another common error, he said.
Stick to simple tags to identify the speaker, and only when absolutely necessary. Replace the overuse of adjectives, he said quietly, with better verb choices, he whispered.
Flow is also extremely important in speech, as we have noticed in our listening exercise.
Here’s another extract from ‘the CULL’ which I hope will amuse as it illustrates this point:
Gripping her handset, she strode purposefully toward the door that connected with Katie’s office. As she walked through, the older woman gave a small jump in her seat.
“SANTA has found the trucker’s route data.”
“How do I make a phone call inside here?”
“I knew if I sent a Helper hidden in an email, they would let it loose on their network.”
“I need to call the hospital in Texas. How…?”
“Now I have the guy’s routing data for the last eight years. Let’s see if there’s a pattern…”
“KATIE!” Amy had raised her voice a little more than intended.
Katie looked up from her monitors.
“I need to call out but my cell can’t get a signal.”
Notice the complete absence of tags and how the conversation flows. There are two people talking almost simultaneously, both focused on their agendas and ignoring the other person and what they are saying. It is a small vignette that also tells us a huge amount about our two characters – both are driven, but in different ways, and to different degrees.
People do not speak logically, not even Mr. Spock. They rarely respond exactly to what has been immediately said before. Machines do this; we humans are far more dynamic.
Something else to note from the extract too, although it may not be that obvious at first: both people are doing something as they talk. We move, eat, drink tea and coffee, scratch ourselves, drive vehicles, etc etc.
Dialogue is hard to master, as I’ve said, and you will probably work at improving how you have written it even more than on the narrative scenes. It can make or break a good tale, so it is very much worth the extra effort, he said.
…here’s the biz on Master Gates:
Suspense Thrillers with a touch of Strange
How NOT to be an ASPIRING Writer
available AMAZON (paper & e-book) and bookstores worldwide.
check out http://www.ericjgates.com to read extracts and discover the inside secrets…
…thanks for that, Eric… see yeez later… LUV YEEZ!…
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