Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Write Wednesday: Dialogue

Welcome to Write Wednesday!

I've been watching lots of TV lately (discovering some new things, finishing up some things I should have seen years ago, trying to keep up with new stuff, etc.) and have been amazed at the variety of dialogue.

It's difficult to pinpoint what makes good dialogue, but it's very easy to tell good dialogue from laughingly bad.  It's tricky, because you want 'real-world' dialogue, but if you write all the 'y'knows,' 'yeah's', and 'huh's', it's just going to be...blah.

I love Joss Whedon's dialogue (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, Dollhouse, and most recently The Avengers) -- you can always tell Whedon dialogue by its hilarious choice of monikers (re-naming something or someone with an apt description -- like Capsicle), its use of "y" on ends of words that don't call for it (writery, demony, etc.) and basically all his characters are hilarious (either self-deprecating, sarcastic or just able to pull one-liners out of nowhere).  People aren't like that in real life.  Real life dialogue is tedious and boring (or at least mine tends to be).

There's also a difference between dialogue written in the U.S. and dialogue written in the U.K.  I'm watching one U.S. show right now and the characters do a little re-naming, but they're not witty.  Occasionally they'll have a line worth repeating but most of it is solid, story-building dialogue.  There isn't an economy of words, necessarily, but there's...there's a lack of sprucing up the wordage.

In the U.K., I choose to believe everyone's witty naturally.  It's my favorite sense of humor (as evidenced by my love of Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde) and writers in the U.K. use it in everything.  Doctor Who, Sherlock, etc.  Dialogue is more flowery, it's much quicker, and they have a knack for using inappropriate words or phrases in the best (and worst) places.  They also don't stop for a laugh.

I think dialogue needs vary based on the type of story you're telling.  It seems like westerns and crime novels skimp on description (because we can all imagine the basics of a western landscape or a dirty city) while people like L.M. Montgomery use their descriptions of scenery to impact the characters in the novels (how many times has Anne rapturously exclaimed over The Bridge of Shining Water or trees?).  I invariably wish I was a wittier person so I could write wittier people, but I think that can be amended by watching a certain amount of television and theatre and reading books like the one you're least it will help somewhat (isn't it dreadful to think that some characters are smarter than you?)

I also think dialogue takes careful, attentive listening.  How on earth will you ever learn to write a certain type of character unless you listen to someone like them?  (Mechanics, nurses, librarians, and even more complicated situations like fish out of water)  Some of this can, of course, be done in your own home, but to get your own impressions of dialogue and setting, it's best to visit as many places as you can.  (Carry a notebook with you)

Theme can also be tied up in here as well -- I was thinking today about a certain story I've been trying to write and all of a sudden, it hit me.  Finding a theme can be so much easier when you think about it as a question.  What question is driving the main character?  What answer are they seeking?  The answer can be good or bad or a mix, but this question will drive them in everything they do, every choice they make, every interaction, every bit of dialogue.  What is the one question your character wants an answer to?  Dialogue becomes narrower, more specific, and the more bland, boring, general dialogue fades away as we concentrate on the all-important answer.

So how can I incorporate what I've been learning about dialogue?

1. I can take notes.  When there's an episode with particularly good dialogue, or a line in a book I fall in love with, I write it down.  These can be studied, kept for inspiration, held up as examples.  Pay attention and think about why you love a particular bit of dialogue.

2.  I can experiment.  A good writing exercise might be to spend some time with one character and write some monologues for them.  That way their voice is strengthened and with a bit of luck it might be easier for a later reader to pick out who's speaking.

3.  I can test dialogue out on other people -- someone might have a better ear then you (or be wittier) and more able to help you tighten up a bit of dialogue.  Just don't bother them overmuch.  :)

What do you think?  Is dialogue one of your strengths or something you could work on?  What are some of your favorite dialogues/monologues? 

See you Friday for First Lines!  Keep reading!

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