Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Dialogue

Go here for the post that inspired this post. I just discovered Scott Bailey's blog today thanks to Lady Glamis. A portion of the post was concerning dialogue, which inspired me to give my own thoughts about the subject. Hey, I take inspiration where/when I can get it, and I always acknowledge the source of inspiration. In the words of Billie Jean (not King or the song by Michael Jackson, but from the movie The Legend of Billie Jean): Fair is Fair!

For whatever reason, I excel (at least in my own mind) at writing dialogue. I'm absolutely fascinated by dialogue and just love a good conversation. I want my characters to have good - surprisingly real - conversations. I want the dialogue as natural and real as possible. I don't want to think hey, people don't talk like this when I'm reading a book. I also don't, just because my books take place in the South, want to fill my dialogue with y'all, yonder, you'uns and so much other stereotypical language that really doesn't happen on a daily basis. I live in the South (middle TN to be exact), and I can tell you that I rarely hear any of the aforementioned words. Yes, people do use those words in the South, just not as often as television shows would have you believe. If it's not so in real life, don't make it so in your book.

My point (yes, I do have one) is that dialogue should seem natural and real. Not every character should talk in exactly the same manner. Give your characters quirks. For example, my 8th grade teacher used the word okay all the time. I mean ALL the time. I picked it up and started using it ALL the time. My father constantly corrected me until I slowly stopped using the word. Well, today, okay, at school, okay, we learned, okay, about the, okay, Illinois constitution, okay, and then . . . My parents had no clue why I was suddenly using that word, until the parent teacher conference. Lightbulb! My mother came home and told me she now knew why I was using the word so much, but to stop it anyway! Yes, Mom can be blunt at times. She's even worse now that she's in her 80s. Geesh!

So (yes, I know, I use that word a lot to - get over it), I try and have the different characters use particular words (like, okay, uh) or phrases (ya know what I mean, I'm just saying, can you believe) to characterize their individuality. At some point, all the characters might use a particular phrase, because the phrase just happens to be catchy, and people sometimes tune into things (okay, are you, okay, like, getting, okay, my point) without even realizing they are doing it. Thankfully, my parents broke me of the okay habit.

Okay . . . kidding, people, kidding . . .

Sometimes, dialogue can feel stilted or just there for the sake of propelling a story. Don't do it! Step away from the keyboard. Rethink your decision to have Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot (yes, I know, most people reading this blog have no clue who those characters are - I do, and that's all that matters) have a convenient conversation to propel the story forward. Every conversation, every word of dialogue, should make sense and have a natural feel - at least in my opinion. Others might disagree. That's the joy of the blogsphere: dissenting opinions exist, and all the writers in the world can view these opinions, learn from them, and make their own mark on the blogsphere and, hopefully, the literary world one day as well. I'm just saying . . .

Now, how do you use dialogue? Do you use regional dialects? Do you research the region to make sure people actually say you'uns or y'all in everyday conversation? Do you base your dialogue on those you know? Do you use key words your friends/family/coworkers use? Do you have a character that is like using the word like so often it's like the sound of nails on a blackboard? Do you enjoy writing dialogue? Is it your strength or weakness?

My weakness right now is that I hear Ben & Jerry's calling my name. Death by Chocolate to be precise. It's a sad fact of life that there is a Ben & Jerry's within walking distance of my office, oh, and a Starbucks too. I'm doomed, I tell you, doomed.

S

10 comments:

Robyn said...

I use a little regional dialect but I try to just flavor the dialogue with it. I don't dump it in, like I dump the salt on my tomato sandwich. Enjoyed your post. :)

Scott said...

Robyn - I throw a "y'all" in every now and then, but I refuse to use "you'uns"! : ) There's nothing wrong with regional dialect, as long as it's not overdone and not used in a stereotypical fashion. I just have a major pet peeve about stereotypes. :) Oh, and I love to dump the salt on tomatoes. YUM!

Thanks for your comments.

Davin Malasarn said...

My problem is my current story takes place in Thailand, and I'm imagining them speaking in Thai before I "translate" their dialog into English. It has made for some really awkward phrases. I feel like I have to work hard on dialog. It's not something that comes naturally to me, and I always appreciate a writer who can do it well.

Scott said...

Davin - I'm stumped. I wouldn't have a clue how to 'translate' a foreign language. I'm guessing that you don't actually have your characters speaking Thai (i.e., your writing out the words in Thai and then showing the English translation). Something might sound really cool in Thai, but the translation might be so grammatically incorrect that English teachers everywhere drop into a collective dead faint.

My suggestion - just make the conversation as 'normal/natural' as possible so that it doesn't feel clunky when you read it out loud. Also, if you (for lack of a better word) Americanize the dialogue, will something (no pun intended) get lost in translation? Is it possible to modify the Thai so the sentence would make sense to non-Thai readers? Will the beauty of the sentence become totally corrupt by doing that?

I'm asking these questions with no true sense of the context your story takes place in - Thailand, American observers, other nationality observers, all Thai.

You're taking on a remarkable feat, and I wish you the best of luck.

S

Tess said...

Hey, I remember Dick, Jane and Spot!

Great post. My novel is middle grade, but also set in the south. I don't use a single y'all or you'uns or yonder. It would ruin the tone completely. I do talk about fields of kudzu and barley, as well as blue bunch flowers, humidity and gnats.

Scott said...

Tess - I'm glad I'm not the only one young enough to remember Dick & Jane. : )

There's nothing wrong with adding local flavor - kudzu, poke salad, grits, corn bread, greens, biscuits made with lard. Oh, my, I'm suddenly very hungry. Oh, and you had to mention the humidity, didn't you? Do you meant the ginormous mosquitoes? They seem to love me dearly.

Lady Glamis said...

I just let it come out naturally. Honestly, I haven't focused much on dialogue. But it does annoy me when people correct and nitpick the grammar in my dialogue. It's just the way the people speak...

This is a great post. I need to pay more attention to what my characters are saying, I think. Thank you for some great food for thought!

Litgirl01 said...

Um...I'm just now figuring all of this out! :-/ So, not everyone talks like me?? LOL Love the post though...very informative! :-)

Scott said...

LitGirl - while everyone might not talk like you, in most instances, people talk pretty much the same unless they're from different parts in the country, where accents come into play. On my current project, everyone is from the same place, so I didn't feel a need to totally differentiate how they 'talked'. I do play with little quirks like "i'm just saying" or using a word repetitively, but that's about it.

In the end, everything depends on where your characters are, if they're all from the same place, and if not, adjust as needed. Yes, I know, that was no help at all.

S

KLo said...

It just made my whole day that you quoted "The Legend of Billie Jean"!!!!! Woohoo!!!!!!!!

But onto dialogue ...

I try to know my characters as well as I possibly can. I'll try to figure out how they'll react differently to the same situations, and that transfers pretty neatly into dialogue. It's kind of a cool trick : )

Dialogue is so vital. When I'm reading something that just blows me away--until the clunky dialogue--it just brings the experience down a notch or 482.