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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What Sets Apart Good Dialogue?

Please welcome guest blogger Devon Ellington

As life has quickened over the decades, so have our reading and writing habits. Good dialogue has always been important to engage readers and viewers -- Shakespeare was no slouch and no one could ever accuse Jane Austen of not knowing how to “turn a phrase.”

However, if you read one of George Eliot’s novels and then read one of Janet Evanovich’s novels back-to-back (I dare you), you’ll see more than just a difference in genre. Novels written in the past had longer, wordier sections of narration in and around their dialogue than most modern novels do.

Perhaps it’s because of television, movies, short videos, and Tweets, but a snappy line of dialogue often captures and holds our attention more than a page of internal monologue or set description.

We could debate the whys and wherefores endlessly, whether it’s a conspiracy by the pharmaceutical companies drive us all into ADHD and make us all dependent on drugs or the evolution of the human brain or we’re headed into a similar decline and fall like the Roman Empire. The reality, if we want to land a publishing contract, is that many reader want a great sex scene followed by a decent conversation, and, rather than a page of description of her lady’s gown, a snappy tag line complete with logo will do. We’re wired, we’re over-caffeinated, we’re active, and we want our writing to reflect that.

So what sets apart good dialogue? What MAKES it?

Dialogue comes from character. People either speak from the heart, or they speak to cover what they’re hiding in their hearts. Either way, it informs us about the character and, in the best writing, supports the story. Honesty or manipulation, it moves the story forward. We want our heroes and heroines to be smart, our villains to be genuinely, dimensionally threatening, and, if there is an intentionally less-than bright character, we want to root for them because they are human beings, not ciphers.

If you eavesdrop on buses or trains, in coffee shops, and waiting rooms, you can pick up a lot of information about cadence and personal rhythm. And then, if and when you write it down, you cut out the boring bits.

We naturally speak rhythmically. Our hearts beat a rhythm. Our nationality and regionality will reflect that rhythm, as will our level of education, to a point. A scene of well-constructed dialogue is musical, with the characters as instruments and the author as the conductor.

Next time you watch a scripted show on television, whether it’s a sitcom or a one-hour drama, close your eyes for a section of it and just listen. After a few lines, you will start to feel the different character rhythms in your body. When you write, you want the reader to feel the same thing.

Cadence is important, as is dialect. Dialect is like seasoning in cooking: Too much, and you wear out the reader; it tastes bad, and they’ll try something else. Too little, and it’s bland, and all the characters sound the same.

Paragraph structure is the roadmap you give the reader. The right amount of single-sentence paragraphs can build tension. Too many of them, or breaking up a character’s action too much from what they’re saying, and your poor reader’s floating in the ocean without a life raft and no hope of rescue. Sentences that run too long will cause your reader to forget where they started, where they’re going, and why. Precision of language around what is said is just as important as precision of language in what is said.

Learning how to listen is key to writing good dialogue. Instead of jumping ahead to what you think someone is saying, the next time you have a conversation, actually wait, listen, think, respond. If it was a scene in a production, you’d have to tighten the pauses, but the process is the same.
Actors call it “being in the moment”, which means responding to what is actually happening with the other person or people in the scenes, not what you assume is happening. It’s one of the things that make going to the theatre and watching a live performance such a magical experience. Even if beats and moments are set in the production, this exact moment will NEVER happen exactly that way again. In film, they do take after take and pick the one that best represents the filmmaker’s vision -- in theatre, it is the immediate experience, and every performance is unique.

What you want to do on the page is make every moment unique. We are in this moment with these characters for a reason -- make it memorable. Read, write, listen -- the more you DO, the more easier it becomes to listen when your characters speak to you, and ask you to present their stories to the world.

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction, and her plays are produced in New York, London, Edinburgh, and Australia. She is teaching an Advanced Dialogue class in April. Her blog on the writing life, Ink in My Coffee, is at http://devonellington.wordpress.com

Advanced Dialogue, presented by Devon Ellington, runs from April 4, 2001 through April 17, 2011


Anonymous said...

Great post! I love a lot of dialogue. Makes me feel like I'm there, in the moment with the characters. Thanks for the post!

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

I too love dialogue. I'm not always up for long internal monologues, but occasionally, especially if they are written in character, they work very well.
I agree, listening to the cadence of speech, the dialect, slang, is the best way to learn to dialogue!

Devon Ellington said...

I get lots of ideas from overheard snippets of conversations.

When I'm reading, I love integrated dialogue. If they're doing something and they stop to yap at each other, and then stop talking to do something else without a good reason to do both together, I wonder about the characters!