Tuesday, March 01, 2005

How to write Dialogue

Dale asks:

Do you have any suggestions for learning how to write dialogue? I can describe a scene and write it vividly like you are there. That for me is easy. But most of my stories are first-person P.O.V. with little or no speaking characters, because dialogue hangs me up.

Dialogue is one of those awkward areas where it's much easier to see that it's not working than to tell you why it's not working or how to fix it. Here's a short list of problems to watch for.

The Don & Rob Lecture. Two hand-puppets are speaking to each other. They both know the subject matter, they agree on the main points, and they're in the scene only so that the author can try to disguise a lump of exposition as character interaction. E.g., "As you know, Don, the incandescent light bulb uses nichrome wire." "Gee, Rob, but didn't Edison try using bamboo filaments first?" These sorts of scenes usually result from over-applying the "Show, not Tell" dictum. Sometimes it is better to just Tell and Get It Over With.

The Point/Counter-Point Lecture. The doppelganger of Don & Rob, this is where the author sets up one character as an utter flaming idjit so that the other character can demonstrate his superior wit and intelligence by absolutely lacerating the idjit with brilliant quips, arguments, and put-downs. While these scenes are fun to write, if the reader doesn't share your glee, they're awful to read. (Most American sitcom dialogue falls into this category, which is why watching sitcoms will turn your brain into feta cheese.)

The Utterly Realistic Dialogue. At first the idea of learning to write dialogue by spending lots of time listening to other people seems like a good idea. Then you do it, and it becomes apparent that real people spend a lot of time saying "um," "er," and repeating what the other person just said, or else muttering trite banalities. Dialogue in fiction needs to be at least twice as efficient as real human speech, which means this technique can work, but only if you focus on three or four key exchanges and mercilessly delete all the rest.

On the other hand, if you're doing comedy, French & Saunders have done some absolutely hysterical routines which consist of nothing but utterly realistic dialogue between two flaming idjits who absolutely agree with each other on every point.

SUGGESTION: I think dialogue can fail because too often the characters are just sock puppets for the author, and no matter whether they agree with or hate each other, at core they fundamentally understand each other. I've gotten good results by forcing fundamental misunderstandings on my characters, sometimes to the point where they inhabit only tangentially intersecting realities and don't even agree on what any given word means -- not that they're aware of this, of course.

Your thoughts?