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The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Dialogue No-No’s June 17, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 5:59 PM
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I’m revisiting dialogue today with a look at what not to do. I’ve made all of these mistakes many times. Thanks to kind – or blunt – more experienced writers calling me (or someone else) out on it, I’ve learned what to avoid. Sometimes I think all of writing is screwing up and having someone fix it for you. Work hard and you can be the one doing the fixing.

1. Tag overdose

We’ve all run into the over emotive cast. Characters don’t say anything. They whisper growl, exclaim, pronounce, shout. Clearly the writer has gotten carried away with their thesaurus.

When it comes to dialogue, said is usually the best word to use. Our minds naturally skip over it. However, it’s essentially meaningless, and it’s best to cut every word you can. By reworking the scene, you can avoid as many dialogue tags as possible. Instead of “he said”, throw in a snippet of action. “‘You can’t go in there.’ He crossed his arms and stood in front of the doorway.” “She took a sip of her coffee and looked at him sidelong. ‘What exactly are you suggesting?'” This reminds the reader that the physical world hasn’t gone away while your characters were chatting.

2. Say my name

I once saw a video of clips from Titanic. Various people said the main characters’ names over and over while a running tally kept track. The grand total? 75 for Rose and 84 for Jack – way higher than it needed to be.

In real life, we don’t usually use the names of the people we’re talking to. Why would we? We both know who they are. Think about it. Not counting getting their attention, when is the last time you addressed someone by name in a conversation? Often the name is in there as a filler, or to remind the reader who the people are. Readers are smart people. They don’t need our help.

3. Teeth can’t talk

If you want to be taken seriously, never do this:

“Yes,” she smiled.

Smiling does not involve speech. I’ve seen this done with frowned, laughed, sighed, etc., even in published work. Just because you can get away with it doesn’t mean it’s right. Instead, say, “Yes”, she said with a smile.

4. You fail grammar for life

Guess what? We all do.

When I run into a foreign exchange student who learned English later in life, I sometimes notice that their speech sounds stilted or off – wrong, somehow. Here’s the thing. It’s actually right.

As a rule, we don’t use proper grammar. We don’t conjugate in past perfect or subjunctive tenses when we ought to. Characters shouldn’t either unless there’s a reason Casual speech is the norm.

5. Watch out for filler

Although sticking action in dialogue is good, the action should be real. I’ve caught myself repeating the same verbs over and over when I’m at a loss for what to write. A few common culprits: nodded, shrugged, smiled, blinked, laughed, and sighed. Make sure you don’t overuse them.

Now I need to get back to my editing and cut out a few more ‘said’s!


Escaping the Hive May 30, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 11:38 AM
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A while back, I read an Onion article detailing alarming events occurring in Indiana. Every citizen had begun to work and speak in unison, declaring in a single voice, “We are Indiana. All will be Indiana.”

While the hive mind scenario works well for satirical journalism or science fiction movies, it’s not something you want creeping into your writing. Too often, I’ve read over my dialogue and realized that my characters sound exactly the same. Characters are created by the writer, after all. If we’re not careful, our personality will show through too much. Having a unique voice is one thing. But when your characters start declaring “We are the author. All is the author,” you need to give them voices of their own.

This is hard. Crafting a separate voice for each individual and making sure they stay true to it is long, exhausting, brain draining work. (I’m going through it right now and it sucks.) You’ll have to rewrite dialogue. Tweak personalities. Maybe even alter the flow of the story. If you do it right, though, it’s worth it. Your characters will sound like real, three-dimensional people, not words you’ve put down on paper.

In  the work of a true master of dialogue, you should be able to look at a line of speech and identify the speaker. Your goal in the quest to avoid the hive mind is to give each important character a unique way of speaking. This will differentiate him/her from the other characters and make him/her more memorable.

A good way to learn how to do this is to study other works. What makes characters sound like themselves? When you think of them, what phrases come to mind? After thinking about different characters and their dialogue styles, here are a few tricks I’ve picked out. Try including them in your own work to break up the hive mind and bring your characters to life.

1. Syntax

I’ve often had to deal with people who never stop talking. They’ll go on and on: repeating points, tossing in anecdotes, or overusing transitions. I’ll eventually interrupt or make my escape. I have also run into people who rarely speak. Dragging information out of them is a chore, and their answers are always brief and to the point.

The structure of characters’ speech can help define them. One might talk everyone elses’ ears off. Another remains strong and silent. A third fires off questions. Everyone’s sentence lengths vary, but different people lean in different directions. Exploit that.

Looking further into syntax, punctuation can be played with. One person might string details together with commas or jump from idea to idea with hyphens. Another might have a fondness for lists or parenthetical asides. This can be overused, but if done sparingly it can help identify a character’s text.

2. Slang/Dialect/Jargon

Different people have different vocabularies. Their careers, backgrounds, and interests can shape the words they use in conversations. Mark Twain manipulates dialect masterfully in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to give characters authentic flair. In the Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce, Beka’s mix of street cant and guardsman jargon speaks to her complicated background. A british character speaking in a slightly different form of English or a foreigner who throws in the occasional bilingual phrase can spice up a monotonous conversation. However, if you’re going to borrow vocabulary from a real group of people or a real language, do your research and make sure you get it right. Don’t rely on Google translate, or actual speakers will be shaking their heads. Finally, don’t use gratuitous ‘unusual’ vocabulary to look clever. Only have characters use it when it makes sense in context and make sure the reader will understand.

3. Word Choice

Less specific than dialect, this focuses on how people say everyday things. Are they formal or casual? Knowing if a person says ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ is a way to get started. ‘Would you like to go to a party with us?’ and ‘You game for a bash?’ clearly come from two very different personalities. Maybe one character uses old-fashioned expressions or clichés. Perhaps another has a catch phrase like “Excellent” or “sweetheart”. (Would Haymitch from The Hunger Games sound the same without his patronizing use of the term?) Identifying the character’s style of speech and a few key words can be really helpful.

4. Figurative Language

This one’s tricky.  I’ve seen people horribly overdo flowery language and purple prose in an effort to make the protagonist sound smart or romantic. However, figurative or playful language in small doses – and used correctly – can give a character depth. It can also be used for comedic effect if a person always comes up with terrible or simply ridiculous phrases. (Karkat’s creative insults from Homestuck are examples of the comedy angle.)

5. Personality

When assigning syntax, word choices, expressions, and anything else, make sure that the dialogue fits. Shy, insecure characters would be more likely to tack on an apologetic “that’s only my opinion”. Confident people intent on getting their way won’t make many requests. They’ll make demands. Link your characters’ personalities with their dialogue and you’re well on your way to breaking free from the hive mind’s nefarious clutches.