Saturday, September 26, 2009

What is Dialogue?

I know, I know...some of you are going to say, What do you mean, 'what is dialogue?' But it is a serious question, not a rhetorical one. I just finished reading someone's response to that on a literary board, and I was blown away by that post. It was so...hmm, for once, I'm at a loss for the right word. It was unknowledgeable, unprofessional...even that description is not right. It was amazingly bad.

The post said something about 'dialog' ( not even spelled correctly) being the 'backtalk' by a person. And then an example was given from the poster's work, and it was also amazingly punctuation, repetitious...hmm, just bad. ( Yes, I'm also being repetitious.)

Maybe a better question for this post would be, not what is dialogue, but how do you write it? Do you use a lot of tags? Do you use slang?
Do you use regional speech characteristics, and the misspellings and partial words that often go along with that? Do you allow your characters to play "verbal ping-pong?" So, let's talk about dialogue for a minute.

What does dialogue do? It paints a picture, it tells something about the story, but most of all, it allows the reader to get to know the character. A character's dialogue needs to be unique to her, just as our own dialogues are unique to us in real life. It needs to tell the reader who this person is, what she is like, what kind of personality
she has, and most of all, it needs to be indicative of the age and life experience of the character. The last is important, because you don't want to have an eleven year old talking like a 16 year old...unless, of course, you have a character who is a genius...for example, Millicent Min, Girl Genius, written by Lisa Yee. But not many of us have that kind of character.

Slang is definitely something to watch out for. Those of us who know teens know their everyday language is full of slang. But it never stays the same. Something that is 'cool' today is 'awesome' tomorrow and 'solid' next week. Slang changes faster than one can become accustomed to it, so the best thing is not to use it except very sparingly, and then only the words that have remained in the teen vocabulary for a long time. And at the moment, I can't think of even one slang expression that has been around for awhile...except, perhaps, 'cool.' Although I heard some kids talking not long ago, and the word for 'cool' now seems to be 'distant.' "Distant?" Don't ask, I have no idea !

How about 'ping-pong' dialogue? That's when you have a couple of characters talking back and forth like this:
"So, what do you want to do?" "I dunno. What do you want to do?" "I dunno. How about a movie?" "Okay, which one?" "I don't care. What one do you like?" "I don't know." "You got any money?" "Nope, do you?" "Nope, I'll go ask Mom."

What do we know about these two? What does the dialogue reveal? Nothing, right? It might be exactly like two kids talking in real life, but for a story, this is nothing but idle chatter going nowhere fast...except to lose the interest of the kids who are reading it.

Dialogue is like everything else in a story, it has to move the story forward and it has to have some direction which will point the reader towards what will ultimately be the climax and resolution of the story. For the example above, wouldn't it be better to have the two boys agreeing on a movie, only to discover they don't have enough money between them, so they need to decide how to get the money without having an adult (Mom) coming to the rescue? As in:
"Let's go see the new Batman movie this afternoon." "Okay, you got any money?" "No." "Well, we need to get some. We can ask Old Man Wilson if we can mow his lawn." "I hate mowing lawns. Let's see if we can clean out the garage instead."

Here we see the boys developing an idea, on their own, about how to earn money, but at the same time, entering into a conflict between the two of them. Maybe they each go their separate ways, because they can't agree on what to do..that can lead to adventures for both of them before they come back together with the money to go see the movie. Much better, much more interesting with all kinds of possibilities in terms of action for both.

Then there is the old bugaboo about regional speech. Especially in the deep South, regional speech is hard to understand and even harder to write. In attempting to convey a country twang, you could write: "wa'al, ah don' rahtly kno'." Do you think a kid is going to be able to decipher this? If you say, "Well, I don't rightly know" you are still using the regional way of speaking, without spelling it out. Kids don't care about how people speak in different parts of the country, they just want to get on with the story and action. Use regional expressions and speech patterns for your characters, but don't spell out phonetically how they talk.

Stay tuned! We'll talk some more about dialogue in the next post.

1 comment:

  1. Dialogue is one of the hardest things to get right, at least in my critique group. It's really hard to sound like a twelve year old, or a seven year old. Harder still if you don't have any kids, or only gain knowledge of how kids act by watching Nickelodeon. I feel I am constantly reminding people of the age they are writing in. Think like a seven year old! Think like a ten year old! Put yourself in their shoes.