"You talk like you was there."

Hearing voices in your head can be a good thing. At least it can be if you’re a writer.

One of the three legs of a good story is characterization. Three things paint the character’s portrait for the reader: description, action, and dialogue. The first is usually the easiest for the writer; the second and third can be harder. For some reason, that last is the hardest for some people.

A number of potential good books have been slain by the problem that all the characters sound exactly the same. If it wasn’t for the attribution, it could be the monologue of a rather disturbed individual talking to himself.

Good dialogue can successfully cue the reader as to which character taking part in a three-way conversation is speaking without the need for attribution. (This works well for depicting phone, radio, or intercom conversations and in other special cases.) This is not to say that “he asked” or “she said” are to be completely dispensed with; rather that it is a method to avoid the Chinese water-torture of each sentence beginning “[fill in the blank] said.” There are a couple of ways to get around the drip-drip-drip of “said.”

The first consideration is to give each character their own “voice.” No two people talk exactly the same way. Each has their own particular word choice, speech cadence, and grammar style. Accents can play a part if the characters involved come from different backgrounds. A word of caution on accents; a little goes a long way. I find reading Joel Chandler’s Uncle Remus stories in the original practically impossible because of his onomatopoeic attempt to render the low-country Georgia slave dialect—and I’m from the South!

Linking an action with dialogue also can obviate the need for attribution. For instance: Red waved a hand. “No skin off my nose, either way.”

I’ve been guilty of sneaking attribution in under disguise with such versions as—“I think not,” Steiner purred.—and—“Yeah, my luck,” Jean grumped. Like wonderful things such as chocolate or cigars, once in a while–no problem. More than that, it may be a matter for you and your Confessor.

Like the above, using an adverb in attribution is not against the law in any jurisdiction of which I’m aware, but it can be bad writing if overused. If one is going to link an adverb with the word “said,” there had better be a darn good reason. I’ve used this lashup occasionally to signal an “uh-oh” moment about the speaker. In the sentence—“Well, that will cause starvation for only about two or three-hundred-thousand,” he said brightly.—the idea was to induce a cringe on the part of the reader and cause him to look askance at the character. This guy bears watching.

The play of the speaker’s cadence can be also be used as a plot element. As an example, the differences in cadence and style between a big-city Northerner and a rural Southerner can produce tension. Listening to a first meeting of the two, one notices the Northerner tends to speak in short, abrupt sentences while the Southerner tends to speak more slowly and with pauses in compound sentences. Often the Northerner mistakes the other’s commas for periods and, thinking he’s been yielded the verbal right-of-way, charges in with his next thought. With the ensuing confusion and resulting hard feelings, the Southerner comes away thinking the Northerner is a fast-talking flim-flam artist and the Northerner comes away with the impression that the Southerner is a moronic hick—thus, a pair of stereotypes have apparently just been confirmed.

Dialogue isn’t that hard if you know your characters: what makes them tick, how did they get to this point, why do they think the way they do–or not think, for that matter. If you really know your characters, you’ll hear them talking in your head; at which point, writing dialogue merely becomes an exercise in taking down dictation.

16 August 2011: Feast of St. Uguzo

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2 Responses to "You talk like you was there."

  1. Veronica Maria Jarski says:

    Characters are always talking to each other in my head. I can relate to that comment!

    I think one reason that writers struggle with dialogue is that it's very different from ordinary conversation. Sure, the dialogue you write has to *feel* real and true … but if you sat down and analyzed conversation in a book vs. conversation in "real life," there's a tremendous difference.

    Our conversations with friends tend to go off on tangents, have fillers (those lovely "likes" and "uhms" and "you know"), and sometimes lack purpose. They can also be very boring to people who are not in the conversation. And conversation in a book needs to be interesting and engaging to the reader, who is like an eavesdropper.

    In contrast, conversations in books are much tighter, have a reason for being there, etc.

    I struggled with dialogue when I first started writing. Everyone sounded stupid and awkward. What helped me was reading plays. I read tons and tons of plays. That way, I didn't get sidetracked by description and narrative. I could focus on the meat of the matter. I read Neil Simon, David Mamet, Sam Shepard, etc.

    And I wrote and wrote and edited and edited and wrote and edited some more.

    Now, writing dialogue is my favorite part of writing, actually.

    Anyhow, I thought I'd pitch in my two cents and maybe shed some light on why some folks struggle with it. I know I certainly did!

  2. Idealista says:

    Thanks for your advices! The only dialogues I ever wrote are between my atheist son and I, and I'm afraid that I might have given him the last word sometimes. But, to say it with Paul Tillich, to get into a debate with an atheist is just not a good idea (expecially if he's your own son!).
    Antonella Garofalo