Monday, January 2, 2012

Reading Experiment - Dialogue

Saying Something with a Purpose

by Carrie K Sorensen

This is a continuation of my Reading Experiment. The goal is to read a book I wouldn't usually to focus more on technique than story line. I have actually finished the book recently, though I found an interesting fact. I stopped taking notes half-way through. This isn't because I stopped noticing things, but because the same things kept coming up. So, though I'm done with the book, I have a list of different topics to discuss. This week, I'm focusing on dialogue.

The dialogue in the experiment story irritated me at first. However, as the novel continued, that changed. The dialogue was smoother throughout most of the novel than in the beginning. The difference, I believe, is the author was trying to show the main character through dialogue in the beginning. Perhaps it was because of this the conversation in the first chapter seems forced and out of place even if it was a plausible scene. It was so different from the rest, that this one scene stuck with me all through my reading - not because I liked it, but because I was trying to figure out how it fit into the story.

I like how Jacqueline Lichtenberg approaches this issue the Alien Romances blog she contributes to. In her post about using dialogue as a tool she says:

The key to good "dialogue" (as opposed to natural speech) is that dialogue only works if the characters actually have something to SAY to each other, rather than to the audience. What they have to say resides in plot and story events.

In the early scene that bugged me, there was no point to the conversation. Even being just a few pages in, I knew that. It was a completely different feel from what had happened in the prologue. Sure enough, not only did the dialogue not matter, the particular character she was speaking to never appeared again in the book. Maybe the author's struggle was such a transitory figure, though that shouldn't have mattered. Any number of plot-based topics could have been alluded to, bringing the scene back in to make sense later on.

There needs to be a point to dialogue, more than just a 'getting to know you' point. The conversation should help move the plot along, or should contribute to the atmosphere you're trying to create, be it suspenseful, comedic, romantic, etc. That doesn't mean every word should be plot-driven. We don't talk like that in real life, characters shouldn't either. It does mean the conversation should have a point, though.

Take a look at your scene. Compare to your notes. Is the dialogue taking you where you wanted to go? Is there a tidbit you can add through this conversation you see happening that gives a little character info? Is there something you want to foreshadow? It doesn't have to be a big plot hint, but maybe something more subtle, like a history in making medicine or a particular dislike that will later be used against the character. It should feel like something that would be talked about in this scene, but also something that has to do with why we are reading.

Not only should there be a reason for speaking, the speech should make sense. This means a couple of things. One, is the dialogue story-true? In other words, would your character really say that? Two, does the dialogue feel real? Would your character really say it that way?

Looking back at the chapter one scene of my experiment book, I don't believe either of these answers was yes for the author. The conversation was stilted, the words didn't flow the same as in other conversations. What was said wasn't true to the main character and was contradictory to the few details we had of the second character. In other words, it stuck out like a sore thumb because it didn't seem natural or true.

Of course, written dialogue can never be like real speech. People use too many repetitive phrases, filler words, or patterns that could irritate the reader if written out. We are left with creating the illusion of a conversation. To maintain the illusion, you have to be aware of how people speak in general, how the culture you're writing in uses rhythm and slang, and specifically, how your characters personalities mold that understanding to their own, unique speech patterns. Be aware that though someone speaks to their friend one way, they will speak to a teacher in another. Once you have the idea of how the conversation would go between real people, you have to cut out all the words that would mean the difference between listening to a private conversation and a public speaker.

I listen to the dialogue I want to write in my head. I put the emotion of the characters into the words, pretending I'm watching rather than creating. There are a lot of questions to take into consideration. Do the words make sense? Is the appropriate emotion behind them? Would character A really say that, or is character B interrupting with a snide comment? Is the conversation smooth? Can I fix the jagged edges through editing? Does more information need to be added? Am I using the right gestures or cue words? Am I using too many? Does the story still work without it? Maybe what's being said simply doesn't have to be said.

There is a lot more that can be said about dialogue, not only in the topics I talked about, but in many other venues. In the end, I think what makes a good dialogue is it's believable and matters in the context of your story. Every conversation should mean something, otherwise your reader may be left with the sour taste I had for just that one scene in the very beginning of my experiment book.

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