Let’s talk about (fictional) talking!

“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” —Jerome Stern

“Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.” —Jerome Stern

There’s a list being shared around tumblr of things that people do in the real world when we talk. People are treating it as a list of things one must to insert into your writing to improve it—which proves that most people don’t understand what dialog in fiction is.

I like to repeat the adage that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to make sense. Storytelling is, among other things, the craft of weaving an illusion. You are attempting to evoke in the reader a dream. You want that dream to be similar to the one you’re holding in your own mind as you craft your story. It needs to feel real, while also making sense—narrative sense. In a narrative, the events that happen are always connected to each and to the overall story. Things happen for reasons that relate to the intent of the participants and the meaning of the plot. But the real world seldom makes sense narratively; real life events that take place near each other are often unconnected, for instance.

The paradox of storytelling is that you can’t achieve that sense of reality and making sense by slavishly imitating the real world.

That is especially true in dialog.

So, dialog isn’t about exactly transcribing the real way that people talk. It is about creating the illusion of the way people talk, while omitting parts that don’t move the story forward. To get back to the list that’s being shared around: it isn’t that you can’t use any of those suggestions, it is that you should dump all of them in just because they’re on the list.

If, like me, you read a lot of fanfic and self-published fiction, you see a lot of these awkward efforts to replicate in dialogue certain quirks and eccentricities of expression that people make in real life, or that actors do as part of their delivery of lines. Unfortunately, these replications often serve as a distraction rather than characterization. For example, in dialogue you might mention that when a character responded to a question with the word “yep” that the character popped the p at the end of the word. If the reader has ever known a person who does that in certain circumstances, or seen an actor doing it in a television series, say, they get it. If they don’t, they’re just puzzled. And during that moment that the reader is trying to figure out what it means, they are no longer in your story. You’ve bounced them from the narrative. You have destroyed the illusion you were so meticulously crafting. You are inviting the reader to stop reading your tale.

And if you do more of those things, you aren’t merely inviting the reader to leave, you’re actively chasing them away!

In real life people say “uh,” “um,” and similar non-words a lot more often than we realize. It’s a pause when we’re trying to pick a word, or figure out how to respond to something or just thinking through the situation we are discussing as we’re talking. If you put those non-verbal filler sounds in as often as they happen in real life, it becomes very annoying to read. Part of the reason we don’t notice is because the tone of voice and the cadence of the sentence (and if it’s a face to face conversation, facial expressions and other body language) give those non-words meaning to the listener. But the reader isn’t getting all of that. So, when writing dialogue, we use those non-verbal sound indicators more sparingly. We deploy them when we want to indicate the speaker is at a loss for words, or is uncomfortable in the situation, or something similar.

In real life we repeat words a lot. We may put the same word in to a sentence more often than it is needed. Like, we really can, you know, say what we mean to say, like, really, you know, in a really messy way. You know? And you can write a character talking in that manner, but you’ll find it’s difficult to keep up the pattern. And again, the reader needs to know why you’re doing it. If you have a character that is supposed to be annoying your protagonist, having all of their sentences ramble and repeat can make your reader as annoyed with the character as your protagonist is. Again, the key is to choose the non-standard grammar for a narrative reason.

Then there are facial expressions and gestures. I have a really bad habit during first drafts of having my characters nod a lot. You can read through a scene I just wrote and sometimes a third or even half of the switches in dialogue begin with the character who is about to speak nodding. And it’s really annoying after a while. In real life, people nod their heads, shake their heads, tilt their heads, waggle their heads and so on while talking. But just as with “uh,” we need to use it a bit less often than it happens.

The first time someone pointed that out in a rough draft, I went through and changed all of those “so-and-so nodded” to other things. I changed each and every one to a different thing. So the first character, instead of nodding, grinned. And then the next character wiggled his hand to indicate indecision. Then the first character frowned and tilted his head. And so on. When I read the scene to myself aloud after revising it, I started laughing part way through, because it sounded as if the two of them were dancing around each other in an elaborate musical number. So I had made it worse, not better. Not every line of dialogue needs a description of what the character is doing with their body. It is perfectly okay to use “[name] said.” Multiple times.

It’s also all right, if there are only two people in the conversation, to skip the name altogether every now and then. But don’t do it more three or four lines in a row. The reader will get confused, and it is really annoying to have to go back and count, “Susan, John, Susan, John…” when you lose track. And it is super duper annoying when you do that and find it doesn’t work. You get to a line that by your count should be John, but it says ‘Susan frowned in thought. “I don’t think so,” she said.’ I have had that happen in a book published by a large publishing house. I assume that during an edit round some lines of dialogue were removed, and the author didn’t double-check that everything still flowed.

On the other hand, you can get away with a lot of things in dialogue that don’t fly in the narrative portions of the text. People talk in sentence fragments and make grammatical errors, so you can do that in the dialogue. But make sure you know why you’re doing it. And don’t over do it.

While we’re on the subject of dialogue: someone sent me a link to this excellent blog post on how to punctuate dialog. Even if you think you know how to punctuate dialog, go take a look. Everyone can use a refresher every now and then.

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

2 responses to “Let’s talk about (fictional) talking!”

  1. cdwoodbury says :

    1. I think you know I pay a lot of attention to written dialog; loved the essay. 2. Thanks for that link!

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