Monday, June 29, 2009

Dialog - Those other Voices

I won't be writing a treatise on short story writing. Rather, I'm simply doing a few posts on common questions or things I've encountered. This post is about dialog. One of the things that often appears in fiction is "realistic dialog." This is a tricky phrase. To be honest, if dialog is too realistic then it becomes a series of grunts, grumbles, repeated words and phrases. "Real" dialog doesn't always work in fiction. Yet, sometimes new writers will defend perfectly reproduced dialog as "being real."

There is the catch. In fiction, "real" isn't as important as moving the story and keeping the reader's attention. So "based on a true story" doesn't mean that the dialog is verbatim. Rather, in short fiction, dialog needs to move the story forward, develop the character, and maintain tension. This usually means the characters speaking are at odds, having opposing ideas, or have some conflict that is being discussed.

"Is that a UFO?"
"Oh. Okay. Wow, that's really cool."
"Yes, it is. I see them all of the time."
"Yes. Not that big of a deal."
"Are you serious?"

Other than the obvious and mundane voice traits I've added to the above two characters ("Yes" and "Oh"), there is nothing thrilling in the above dialog. Well, maybe if it were REAL then it would be quite exciting to the reader. Although with the lackluster exchange, it seems to under-deliver. And in part, this is due to lack of hard conflict. If you're a fan of The X-Files, then you can probably re-imagine the above exchange between Scully and Mulder. Most likely it would involve disagreement (conflict).

Also, the above dialogue does little to move the story forward. Clearly the characters have spotted a UFO - or so one says. And one character is new to the experience while the other finds it rather commonplace. That work is mainly done in the first 4 lines. The remainder of the dialogue is pretty much useless, short of using for comedic affect by expounding upon its mundane nature.

Once again, every writer has his or her own approach to this, and I'd be interested in learning some of those. I wonder how the above dialogue could be made more interesting and move a story along within 9-10 lines. That would be a 10 line flash fiction work. :)


Matthew Baugh said...

It's just off the top, but:

You sound disappointed.
That's because I hate it when you don't take me seriously.
What do you mean?
You're making fun of me.
Why do you say that?
You don't believe that was a UFO, do you?
In fact, I do.
Then how can you be so blasé about it?
My people have had such vehicles for centuries.
Oh my God!

John Goodrich said...

Fictional characters need to have a motivation to speak. In reality, most people don't have one. Listen to anyone who is talking on their cell phone; 90% of it will be flabby dialog at best, filler at worst, repetition almost certainly.

A story is supposed to be about something interesting. Reality has no responsibility to keep us riveted.

Anonymous said...

"What is that? Some kind of UFO or something?"
"Not exactly."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, it's not 'unidentified.' I know precisely what it is."
"We've been studying this particular model for about a decade."
"Wow, look at the time. I'd better get going..."
"Just a minute. Can you keep a secret?"
"Uh, sure. But make it quick. I really need to go..."
"I know where one of them is buried."

Charles Gramlich said...

It took me a long time to learn to write effective dialogue. I still don't consider it a strong point of mine. One rule that I always try to keep in mind is to keep it broken. Very few people speak in full sentences and long phrases. Although that could be a nice charcterization if used sparingly.

Rick said...

I just try not to fall asleep reading my own stuff. If it keeps me interested, then I'm good to go with it as long as it keeps the story moving. That "Internal Boredom Approaching Detector" we all have is a big help in that regard because our readers have that same detector hard-wired into their brains as well. Of course, everyone is bored by different things as I'm write now getting bored by my response to your question ...

Stewart Sternberg said...

I think the worst thing in the world is to read bad dialog. I think it goes back to needs to do something other than fill space or serve as merely a timing mechanism. On the other had, there is nothing worse that dialog which serves as information dump. You know what I mean. Obviously it comes back to economy.

Steve Buchheit said...

"Is that a UFO?"
"They're back again?"
"You've seen them before?"
"I see them all the time. No biggie."
"What do you mean, 'no biggie,' it's a frickin' UFO?"
"A small one. You should see what we get around here at the winter solstice."
"You're rippin' me, aren't you? That's not a UFO."
"Your right. It's not. The UFOs don't fly over the Air Force base. The like to fly over the lake."

Daniel said...

I tend to like writing short/snappy dialogue (as long as it works). Some times I'll read the exchanges aloud to hear if they make sense and aren't too boring. Since I started converting my novel to a podcast, I've been paying more attention to how I write dialogue.

"Is that a UFO?"
"You bet. I see 'em all the time."
"Yeah. It's no big deal."
"Are you serious?"
"As a heart attack."
"Have you told any one else about this?"
"Let's keep it that way, Mr. President."

William Jones said...

Wow, what a great set of responses and examples. Or maybe I should say what a great dialog on dialogue. Perhaps these posts could be combined into a post on writing dialogue. The are quite useful. I started to reply to each individually, but realized I'd be repeating my comments. This is a good example of the myriad approaches to writing, and the use of dialogue.

Anonymous said...

"Is that a UFO?"


"Wow! That's pretty nea...wait, how do you know it's a UFO?"

"Because I work for them."

"Good one, Frank. Always knew you were a bit off. Hey, is it just me or is it getting nearer?"

"Yes. This way, please."

"Okay, you are not nearly as funny as you think you are. Hey, let go of my arm! I'm not getting any closer to that thing!"

"Up the ramp, please."

"Cut it out! That's it, I am totally outta here...hey, what did you just inject into my.....arfm....grmfffh..."

"Watch your head...."