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05.07.2011 19:10    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Dialogue  Writing Craft  Fiction Elements  Fiction Writing      Tags: writing dialogue  crawford kilian  

Dialogue has to sound like speech, but it can't be a mere transcript; most people don't speak precisely or concisely enough to serve the writer's needs. Good dialogue has several functions:

  • To convey exposition: to tell us, through the conversations of the characters, what we need to know to make sense of the story.
  • To convey character: to show us what kinds of people we're dealing with.
  • To convey a sense of place and time: to evoke the speech patterns, vocabulary and rhythms of specific kinds of people.
  • To develop conflict: to show how some people use language to dominate others, or fail to do so.



Each of these functions has its hazards. Expository dialogue can be dreadful:



“We'll be in Vancouver in thirty minutes,” the flight attendant said. “It's Canada's biggest west coast city, with a population of over a million in the metropolitan area.”



Dialogue can convey character, but the writer may bog down in chatter that doesn't advance the story.



“When I was a kid,” said Julie, “I had a stuffed bear named Julius. He was a sweet old thing, and whenever I was upset I'd howl for him.”



(Unless Julie is going to howl for Julius when her husband leaves her, this kind of remark is pointless.)

Dialogue that conveys a specific place and time can become exaggerated and stereotyped:



“Pretty hot ootside, eh?” remarked Sergeant Renfrew of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. “Good day to get oot of the hoose and oot on the saltchuck, eh? Catch us a couple of skookum salmon, eh?”



Dialogue that develops conflict has to do so while also conveying exposition, portraying character, and staying true to the time and place:



“Gadzooks,” said Sergeant Renfrew as he dismounted from his motorcycle. “Wouldst please present thy driver's licence and registration, madam?”

“Eat hot lead, copper!” snarled Sister Mary Agnes as she drew the .45 from within her habit.

Some Dialogue Hazards to Avoid:

  • Too much faithfulness to speech: “Um, uh, y'know, geez, well, like, well.”
  • Unusual spellings: “Yeah,” not “Yeh” or “Yea” or “Ya.”
  • Too much use of “he said,” “she said.”
  • Too much variation: “he averred,” “she riposted”
  • Dialect exaggeration: “Lawsy, Miz Scahlut, us's wuhkin' jes' as fas' as us kin.”
  • Excessive direct address: “Tell me, Marshall, your opinion of Vanessa.” “I hate her, Roger.” “Why is that, Marshall?” “She bullies everyone, Roger.”



Some Dialogue Conventions to Consider:



Each new speaker requires a new paragraph, properly indented and set off by quotation marks.



“Use double quotations,” the novelist ordered, “and remember to place commas and periods inside those quotation marks.”

“If a speaker goes on for more than one paragraph,” the count responded in his heavy Transylvanian accent, “do not close off the quotation marks at the end of the first paragraph.

“Simply place quotation marks at the beginning of the next paragraph, and carry on to the end of the quotation.”



Use “he said” expressions only when you must, to avoid confusion about who's speaking. You can signal increasing tension by moving from “he said” to “he snapped,” to “he snarled,” to “he bellowed furiously.” But the dialogue itself should convey that changing mood, and make such comments needless.

Action as well as speech is a part of dialogue. We expect to know when the speakers pause, where they're looking, what they're doing with their hands, how they respond to one another. The characters' speech becomes just one aspect of their interactions; sometimes their words are all we need, but sometimes we definitely need more. This is especially true when you're trying to convey a conflict between what your characters say and what they feel: their nonverbal messages are going to be far more reliable than their spoken words.

Speak your dialogue out loud; if it doesn't sound natural, or contains unexpected rhymes and rhythms, revise it.

Rely on rhythm and vocabulary, not phonetic spelling, to convey accent or dialect.

If you are giving us your characters' exact unspoken thoughts, use italics. If you are paraphrasing those thoughts, use regular Roman type):



Now what does she want? he asked himself. Isn't she ever satisfied? Marshall wondered what she wanted now. She was never satisfied.



If you plan to give us a long passage of inner monologue, however, consider the discomfort of having to read line after line of italic print. If you wish to emphasize a word in a line of italics, use Roman: Isn't she ever satisfied?


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About the Author

 

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He moved to Canada in 1967 and now resides in Vancouver B.C. Crawford has had twelve science fiction and fantasy novels published. He has been nominated for an Aurora Award 3 times for his novels Eyas, Lifter and Rogue Emperor- A Novel of the Chronoplane Wars. His latest contribution to SF is a non-fiction book for would-be SF writers called Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. Crawford has two more novels in the works.

To learn more about him, visit his blog at: http://crofsblogs.typepad.com/fiction/

 
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