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Say What?

Monday, September 29, 2008

“Is the dialogue between characters natural and not stilted, revealing plot and emotion in a way that narrative cannot? Are the characters’ voices distinct and appropriate for the setting (time period or scenario)? Is narrative necessary and well-placed with the dialogue, not overwhelming the reader?”
~2008 ACFW Genesis Contest Score Sheet

“Does the dialogue sound natural and/or realistic? Note author’s use of tags, beats, and word usage- is it appropriate for the character/time period, etc.?”
~GothRom Haunted Hearts Contest Score Sheet

“Is there an effective balance between narrative and dialogue? Does the dialogue read naturally, for the time, and reveal the voices of the characters? Does the dialogue and narrative reveal characterization, move the story and/or relationships forward? Is the narrative skillfully used so that the reader is not overwhelmed with information?”
~Crested Butte Friends of the Library Romance Score Sheet

“Dialogue: Natural; believable; well-balanced with narrative; progresses the story; characters’ voices consistent and individual to their personalities.
“Narrative: Well balanced with dialogue . . .”
~The Sheila Writing Competition Score Sheet

“Is the amount of dialogue balanced in relation to the narrative? Is the dialogue natural and genuine? Is the dialogue appropriate to the category/genre? Does the dialogue have a reason for being there or does it feel superficial? Do the dialogue and narrative serve to advance the plot?”
~Virginia Romance Writers’ Contest Score Sheet

“Is there a good balance between dialogue and narrative? Is there enough narrative to support the action and keep the story moving without being so overwhelming that there’s nothing else going on but internal thoughts of the character? (Think about the movie Castaway…even though he was on an island alone, he still had dialogue.) Is the dialogue natural or stilted? Is the author able to relay important information through dialogue without it coming across as a lecture or one character saying something to another character they already know? Is the dialogue appropriate for the region/era in which the book is set? For the characters’ education and socio-economic status?”
~Kaye Dacus, Critical Reading series

I hope you get the point from these examples of questions I’ve posted as to what some of the topics we’re going to be delving into in this series on dialogue will cover.

In How to Grow a Novel, in the chapter “Our Native Language Is Not Dialogue,” Sol Stein writes: “Dialogue is a language that is foreign to most writers of nonfiction and many newcomers to fiction. Totally different from whatever language a writer grows up using, dialogue is also a triumphant language. It can make people unknown to the author cry, laugh, and believe lies in seconds. It is succinct, but can carry a great weight of meaning. In a theater, dialogue can draw thunderous applause from people who have paid heavily for the privilege of listening to it. At its best, as in Shakespeare’s best, dialogue provides us with memorable—and beautiful—guides for understanding the behavior of the human race” (pg. 90).

Wow. What a burden to put on this portion of our writing!

Since 99% of writers are readers, we all know when dialogue “works” and when it doesn’t when we read it. We just may not be able to put our fingers on exactly what it is that makes it work or not. Well, that’s what we’re going to try to figure out in this series.

Now, your assignment for this week:
Find a reality show—like America’s Next Top Model or Big Brother or something where the characters are somewhat confined in an area with each other, which leads to sit-down conversations and not just people yelling instructions or encouragement at each other. It needs to be a conversation. Record a couple of minutes of it and then transpose—word for word, um for um, like for like—the conversation into text. Then find a contemporary-set movie that you’ve enjoyed, one that you think has great dialogue (a romantic comedy like You’ve Got Mail or something like that would be good) and transpose a scene of conversation from it (the scene in You’ve Got Mail when Joe stops by Kathleen’s apartment when she’s sick and he brings her the daisies is a good one for this exercise). Aside from all the words that have to be bleeped from the reality show’s conversation, what differences do you find between the “real” conversation and the scripted one? Be prepared to discuss this on Thursday’s post, when I’ll post the examples I find.

Until then, let’s kick the comments off with questions from y’all—what problems are you having with dialogue? What do you want to know about it? Are there any concerns that the score-sheet questions I posted above raise for you?

  1. Monday, September 29, 2008 4:07 am

    I’ve been looking forward to this series, Kaye. Dialogue is an aspect of my writing I want to strengthen.

    I took a writing course a few years back in which we were given an assignment to go to a public place, listen to a conversation and write it down verbatim. What I learned was that actual speech can be downright boring. It meanders and is filled with what we in Toastmasters call “crutch words,” those “and’s, like’s, ums,” and “you knows.”

    One aspect of dialogue I hope you cover in this series is that of creating distinct voices for each character.


  2. Jess permalink
    Monday, September 29, 2008 9:08 am

    I, also, have been looking forward to this series. I think I use too much dialogue. And I’m afraid my characters sound too much alike. I tried assigning different words to each character, like having her say “only” and him say “just,” but I think I need to go deeper.
    I like your activity!


  3. Monday, September 29, 2008 10:26 am

    I’ve been looking forward to this series, Kaye. The whole balancing of narrative with dialogue is a topic I haven’t really studied. It should be very interesting to follow.

    I, too, have the problem with differentiating my characters dialogue. I know several of the basic “concepts” to invoke to make them unique, but I mustn’t be doing them right, as they still sound the same. HELP!

    Have you seen “Something to Talk About”? I think I might dialogue the poisoning scene from it for the movie part. I don’t watch reality t.v., actually I don’t watch t.v. much at all. So I might just have to eavesdrop on a conversation in our home for the reality part of the exercise. Hope that works.


  4. Monday, September 29, 2008 10:53 am

    I happy you’re doing this series, Kaye. I look forward to learning more about effective dialogue.


  5. Monday, September 29, 2008 11:21 am

    Looking forward to this series, Kaye.

    My problem with dialogue, writing African-American characters, is that the vast majority of AA folks I know, including myself, are multi-dialectic. By that I mean, we speak one way, polished and professional, when in places that warrant such, like school, work, etc. We speak a wholly other way when we are among our family and close friends. I don’t mean “ebonics” here but comfortable, less perfect version of English. I suspect other groups do this too. Reflecting this in a novel is difficult.


  6. Monday, September 29, 2008 11:39 am

    Dialogue is my greatest love in writing. The main reason I wanted this series was to see how others felt about it.

    Relating to Patricia’s comment, the one time I ever had to (as in “not my choice”) write a script about about a rapper (already putting me immediately out of my element) I didn’t even try to touch on dialect. I find it’s easier to rule out the things they wouldn’t say than try to invent my own idea of how they might talk. It’s easy to just come off as racist if you do that. The majority of black people that I’ve been friends with talk like everybody else anyway with the main differences in the spoken accent. I personally hate when accents are written into dialogue (such as a southern person saying “I need to get my car’s o’l changed”). It’s just distracting and reminds me that I’m reading a book/script.

    I’d say it’s easier to just let the reader, or in my case, the actor make it fit how they feel it should rather than force anything.


  7. Monday, September 29, 2008 12:20 pm

    Oh, btw, I understand that getting accusations of racism probably isn’t something you would deal with when approaching that issue. It’s something I feel the need to be very conscious about though.


  8. Monday, September 29, 2008 12:22 pm

    I have score sheets from the Genesis judges, and while the judges were in agreement on nearly every point they took the time to comment upon, for my WIP, it’s under dialogue they’ve diverged. On one specific point of a secondary character’s dialogue, both commented. One said it was “a nice touch,” while the other called it “a little confusing.” So… guess that leaves it up to me to make that call? *s*


  9. Monday, September 29, 2008 4:56 pm

    This is my first visit to your site, and I’m not certain whether or not I’m intruding into a private contest, but I have a question for you in reference to dialogue. Would you agree that dialogue moves smoother when it is accompanied by non-verbal influences? For example,
    “Where were you last night?” Tom pressed her for the truth.
    “I…well, I was lost.” She bit her lip in disgust.
    “I waited for you.” He pressed his hands into his eyes in frustration. “I waited more than an hour.”
    She twisted a strand of hair between her fingers and fidgeted with her words. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, well, something came up….” and the story goes on.

    As compared to:

    “Where were you last night?”
    “I… well, I was lost.”
    “I waited for you. I waited more than an hour.”
    “I’m sorry….” And so forth.

    Or, are the non-verbals simply unnecessary and nothing more than filler?


  10. Monday, September 29, 2008 4:59 pm

    Welcome, Travis, I’m glad you stopped by and that you left your comment.

    What you’re referring to is usually called “sub-texting,” which is very important with dialogue in prose—and something that we will spend some time focusing on in this series!


  11. Tuesday, September 30, 2008 7:54 am

    Well, I look forward to the exchange. I’ll try to stop by more often. And thanks for your observation about sub-texting.


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