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Oct 21

Talking Up Your Story

dialogue banner Talking Up Your StoryOK, this week I have settled on dialogue over action because, I believe, dialogue is my strongest of the three elements and I have more to say on it. Is it more important than action? Well, probably not, as you can technically write a story without dialogue but not without any action. I was brought up on television and films more than books, and this has impressed upon me the value of what people say.

A lot of the basic ideas from the week about description are transferable. A variety of vocabulary is good – every time I am uninspired and resort to “he said,” I sigh and hang my head in shame – as is mixing up the sentence structures. Also, you have to consider the different ‘levels’ of the dialogue: what is being said, how it is being said, and how it is presented to the reader.

On what is being said, remember that a quirky trait does not make a good character, and presenting an accent in the speech with apostrophes everywhere and purposeful misspellings can be confusing and is almost definitely unnecessary. To completely contradict my ‘show, don’t tell’ mantra of before, I prefer ‘Billy asked in a thick southern drawl, “(something written in standard English)”,’or where languages are involved, I tend to go with either ‘they were talking something incomprehensible to the character whose point of view I’m using’ or ‘speaking in Portuguese so that Brian could not understand, Carlos said “(something written in standard English)”’. Of course, each to their own and do what you like with your story and all that but, for me, the clarity here is more important than something that looks a bit odd on the page.

My slight caveat to this is mannerisms. When someone asks me to do something, I will either answer “Sure” or “Actually, (some excuse)” with little variation. Perhaps “Yeah, no problem” or “Hah, no” depending on my enthusiasm for the task, but my point is that people do not use the range of vocabulary they might use when they write when in conversation. These are small things, certainly not something you can try and build a character around, but when creativity is failing and the story is not progressing, it can be an interesting distraction to focus on for a time and gives your characters some nuanced diversity.

Finally, there is the matter of using dialogue to give information. If you think of a film, all you have is what you see and what the characters say, and (most of the time) nothing is narrated outside of this. The most crude example of this is someone asking, “What’s shoobalooba?” and another character explaining all of its intricate details. This is OK, but do be careful. Does character A trust character B enough to relate his whole life history to her? Also, when you are talking, explaining something to your friends, particularly something complicated, think about how much summarising you do and how many details you skip over. If a character is dishing out the lore knowledge, it should be different to if you the narrator were dishing it out. If you want to get fancy, think about how different characters might relate the same story differently, based on their opinions.

I might have touched on this in another blog post somewhere, or just had a conversation about it recently, I don’t remember, but I think it is better to have your characters knowledgeable about the world they are in. Frodo never asks “what’s Mordor?” – he just gets uncomfortable by its mention. When the hyperdrive engine is leaking, all we know is that it is important and that its broken; no one stops to say “wait, those things can leak?” It grounds the characters and helps immerse the readers more than if you are explaining details, either by narration or using a character as a mouthpiece.

Moving on to how something is being said, you have three main options: an equivalent of ‘said’, an adverb, or through setting the scene and punctuating correctly. On the first two, you can have ‘said quietly’ or ‘whispered’ and in my eyes both are fine and you are better off for the variety. Some literary snobs swear unholy torment on those who use adverbs, but… they’re crazy. Don’t listen to them. Also think about what is implied by how the character speaks – frequent quietness implies shyness, for example.

On the latter option, consider the difference between ‘Brian threw a lamp at Carlos. “How do you like that? Stupid dog!”’ and ‘Brian rubbed Carlos’s belly. “How do you like that? Stupid dog.”’ All I have changed is the context and one punctuation point, and (hopefully) you read the two completely differently. The point is that you do not need to follow up every spoken line with a clause explaining who said it and how they said it – you can imply the details and streamline the story.

Variety is key, but the context will often dictate which approach you use. It is awkward trying to imply things in a meeting between six of your characters. ‘Said’ equivalencies tend to be snappier than adverbs and fit better in tense, dramatic scenes.

I think that about covers it. Feel free to get in touch via all of the normal mediums listed at the end of all of the other blog posts. Otherwise, I’ll be back next week to talk action!