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Friday, 4 November 2011

Stuart's Daily Word Spot: Dialogue

swearing in cartoonImage via Wikipedia
Dialogue: noun – a work of literature constructed in conversational form; the part of a novel describing the conversations between characters; verbal interchange or discussion; diplomatic contact between nations or blocs; valuable or constructive communication between different groups.

Dialogue can move a story forward, increasing the pace, or it can be used to describe events, emotions and people in a more subtle way than pure narrative. It also breaks up text on the page, allowing white space to make the passage more appealing to the eye. A lot has been written about tag lines in dialogue and I admit to avoiding them whenever possible. However, in long passages of dialogue, it's necessary to identify the speakers from time to time so the reader doesn't become confused about who is speaking.
Many beginners use adverbs in their tags or replace a simple 'he said', 'she said' with variations like, 'shouted', 'cried', 'expostulated', 'avowed', exclaimed' and so on. Some things to remember about this: 'he/she said' rapidly becomes 'invisible' to the reader, supplying the clue to the identity of the speaker without drawing attention to the tag. Terms such as 'shouted', 'cried' and the rest are generally redundant if the dialogue is well written, as the words and context will describe the manner of delivery. And adverbs are best omitted from fiction writing whenever possible. The general rule of thumb advised by most of those in the know is that one adverb in a thousand words is quite enough.
It's important to be aware that dialogue in a story is not simply natural speech. If you listen to people talking - really listen – you'll observe numerous pauses for thought, often punctuated by 'redundant' words to fill the space whilst the speaker thinks; 'er', 'you know?', 'like' are examples of such fillers. Also, people repeat themselves and frequently speak in banal terms when holding conversations. The job of the writer is to compose dialogue that reflects the nature of the character without reducing the text to boring passages of meaningless twaddle. If a writer can make his characters into poets as they speak, without resorting to overblown language, there's a good chance that the resultant dialogue will captivate the reader.
Another aspect of dialogue writing often overlooked is the use of contractions. Using the 'correct' forms of phrases that are usually contracted will make your dialogue sound stilted in the mind of the reader. But that doesn't mean that every instance of such phrases should be contracted; balance is important.
Similarly, the use of dialect and foul language in dialogue needs to be well regulated if it is not to either confuse or offend the reader. A text peppered with dialect only fully understood by the people who've lived all their lives in the hamlet of Nether Puddleton is likely to have your readers scratching their heads in an effort to discern meaning. And a block of dialogue with every alternate word as an expletive will simply irritate and possibly offend many readers. As the modern expression has it; less is more.

'Get your skinny arse over 'ere!' Carter yelled angrily.  
Here, 'yelled' and 'angrily' are unnecessary, as the words and punctuation send the message to the reader.

'Come; place your gentle hand in mine and I'll lead you to the dance.'
The reader here knows that the speaker is a male, talking to a female. So, if only these two characters appear in this part of the story, no tag is needed to identify the speaker.

'I erm, well, like, I was about to, you know, I thought if you, like, erm, well, would like to maybe, erm come to dinner with me, like?' 
A little exaggerated; but this is what a lot of natural speech is like.

'I wondered if you would, maybe, er, have dinner with me?' 
The same sentiment, but this time the speaker comes across as a shy or diffident individual asking a question of someone admired, and the reader doesn't have to plough through all the extraneous stuff. The manner of speech, the hesitation and lack of confidence are all conveyed by the words used.

'Tha's a raight fothery nugtent, an' there's nay doot ya'll fratter yon gloogs if tha nivver gits out on thither blitherpile.' 
That the speaker is being insulting is clear. However, the meaning of the sentence is impossible to discern (largely because some of the language used here is invented). But it illustrates the over-use of the dialect form.

'I cannot agree with you, because my view does not tie in with the way you are arguing or with the horrible way you are stating it.'
This, apart from sounding pompous, is stilted and unnatural.
'I can't agree with you, because my view doesn't tie in with the way you're arguing or the horrible way you're stating it.'
This is an improvement. But the following might make for better dialogue, without altering the meaning:
'I can't agree; our views don't match and the way you state them is offensive.'

As a final point; note that punctuation belonging to the speech is included inside the quotation marks.

'If I ask you nicely, will you give me what I want?'

But: 'I hope he'll give me what I want.' Was she bold enough to ask?

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