Wednesday, 20 May 2009

SPEAK TO ME

When your characters speak, it must sound authentic and specific to them. The reader should get a sense of who’s talking just by hearing their dialogue. And yet this resembles little how people actually talk. Listen to any conversation – lovers flirting, an argument, an impassioned debate – write it down verbatim and read it back. Makes for terrible dialogue. You have to trim all the pauses, the repetition, the prosaic irrelevance. Everything your characters say must move the story forward, reveal character or act as exposition. Dialogue must be crisp and taut, pruned of extraneous flab. Read speech back aloud and ask yourself whether your character would say that. Not many people say: ‘I cannot understand why I sound so stilted.’ Use the contraction ‘can’t’ unless you’re writing a period drama.

Don’t be afraid to use ‘she said, he said’ all the time. Use ‘he espoused’, ‘she exclaimed’, ‘they quipped’ only if you’re sure your reader has a bucket nearby. Unless you’re conveying volume – ‘he shouted’ – ‘he said’ suffices and allows the author to remain invisible. And don’t qualify with adverbs too often: "Yeah, right," he said, sarcastically. This is telling the reader what to think of the dialogue; the speech itself should do that where possible. Worse still is using speech tags to develop character, as in “Go fuck yourself,” said the coarse, plain-speaking woman; or to point out the speaker’s state of mind: “Outrageous,” he said, aghast.

A sequence without tags can be powerful, as long as it remains clear who’s talking. (Nothing more irritating than having to track back to confirm the voice we’re hearing.)

Vary direct speech with reported speech to give your writing cadence and variety.

Be careful of characters telling each other things they clearly know. “It’s great to see you, as it’s been three weeks since the parachute jump, when you broke your ankle and we laughed in the ambulance as it rained outside.”

Avoid dialect or broken English unless absolutely necessary.

Study published writers to see how they use dialogue to advance the story, show you something about a character.

12 comments:

Nicola Morgan said...

Excellent points. Particularly liked your “It’s great to see you, as it’s been three weeks since the parachute jump, when you broke your ankle and we laughed in the ambulance as it rained outside.” !!

I am glad you don't say "avoid adverbs" - people take that far too literally. As you quite rightly point out, it's the UNNECESSARY adverbs we should avoid, the ones where the dialogue perfectly well shows the way in which it's spoken or the thoughts within the speaker's head.

rebecca said...

Ditto Nicola Morgan. Excellent points. I've taken creative writing classes where writers 'tell each other what they clearly know.' Frankly, as a reader, it makes for boring dialogue and it is at the point I'm no longer interested in reading the rest of the story. Also, I find that coarse language is mostly unnecessary. A word like 'fuck' is a powerful word and a writer should know when to use it to make the most of it and the character. There was one writer in class that loved to use the word and used it so liberally that I hated reading his stories (they were anemic to tell the truth and he thought by puffing it up with curse words would make it interesting? I don't know.) Nonetheless, the professor finally pointed out the reasons why he should not use them and that a story could be told without it.

I like your blog...I will most certainly return.

TOM J VOWLER said...

"Thanks, Nicola, for your comment, which you made in response to my piece about dialogue and how characters shouldn't utter things the listener already knows.'

Hi Rebecca. Nice to meet you.

Rogue said...

Opps,, mea culpa. Your piece shall remain ever present in my mind as I continue forth Tom. Thank you.

Nicola Morgan said...

"Um," she wondered to herself, quizzically, uncertain as to whether the man was taking the piss out of her for labouring the point that he had already made, concerning unnecessary adverbs and qualifying phrases. "Never mind," she affirmed resignedly, deciding that whether he was or wasn't, the damage to her reputation as a giver of good writing advice was in shreds.

TOM J VOWLER said...

"Far from it," the bleary-eyed, somewhat hungover penner of prose assured her. "Your reputation for sagacity on the writing arts continues to spread far these lands."

Nicola Morgan said...

"Hungover?!" she gasped in amazement. "Surely not?" she queried repetitively, unable to believe that such a terrible thing could be true of an author. "Don't you have to stay sober at all times?" she continued, ignorantly, gullibly, and not even in the slightest bit ironically.

Nicola Morgan said...

PS This is so much more fun than trying to write well. She said, avoiding workily.

Maddie V @Palgrave Macmillan said...

"A sequence without tags can be powerful, as long as it remains clear who’s talking. (Nothing more irritating than having to track back to confirm the voice we’re hearing.)"

My personal pet peeve is actually the opposite peril - qualifying every line of dialogue with 'he said', 'she said' - readers are not silly, they can keep up!

Great post - will have to bookmark your blog. Anyone reading this may be interested to know we (hope) to be offering as sage advice as your blog contains at a writer's event on June 6th, more info here: http://www.thewritershandbook.com/invite.asp

TOM J VOWLER said...

Indeed, Maddie, he said.

Good to meet you, he said.

aggie said...

I love your advice. Thank you! I recently just started my own "novel" which I haven't even named. I hope to refer back to you often to learn more. =)

TOM J VOWLER said...

Thanks, Aggie. Keep in touch to let us know your progress.