We’ve all been there: watch a new episode of a TV series or the like, where the characters do stupid things that serve no purpose other than to prolong a misunderstanding and put off the resolution of a subplot until a later episode. A subplot which could easily be resolved if one character simply told another character a piece of information that we, the viewers, already know. And usually a piece of information that would naturally come up in conversation if the two characters simply sat down and talked.
This particular storytelling problem isn’t just limited to television shows or similar serialized stories—but it is prevalent in such narratives because of a perceived need to use up screen time and prolong the suspense so that the viewer will keep coming back.
I say perceived because that time could be used showing the characters having the conversation, reacting to what they learn, and so forth. The counter argument is that viewers/readers don’t want to watch that sort of thing. Yet, as alluded to in the screencap of the blog post above, tens of thousands of readers and viewers create and read tens of thousands of fanfic stories that do precisely that. One of my favorite fanfics is 45,000 words of two characters processing some shared trauma and learning to trust each other. They aren’t just talking, things happen and other characters are involved, but at its heart the story is about these two getting to know each other and decide whether they are going to be friends or something more.
I totally understand the need to create suspense and keep the reader interested. But you don’t have to do it my creating these contrived circumstances where the characters who normally interact all the time just keep not speaking about something that both of them are very upset about. Because if the issue causes suspense, that means any revelation about it will have consequences. And you know what? Whatever those consequences are, they will also be new things to create suspense about!
Instead of finding ever less believable reasons that the characters don’t talk, let them talk. Then let the chips fall and see what happens next.
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 other 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 not 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.
As the poster says, “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over, and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”
In 1066 William II of Normandy won the Battle of Hastings, effectively conquering England (though it took him several more years to secure his victory). Among the changes William the Conqueror wrought on English society was to place a number of his French and Norman allies into positions of power throughout the kingdom, and Norman French became the language of the elite.
This is one of the reasons English has a number of pairs of nouns—one with an Old French root, the other with a Saxon root—which mean the same thing, but one word in the pair is thought to be more formal or fancy and the other casual. Examples include poultry and chicken, purchase and buy, or scarlet and red.
Not all of the words borrowed from French happened at that time. With only the narrow English Channel separating the isle of Great Britain from France, English had no shortage of opportunities to mug French for some new words or phrases. And that’s just one language. Since speakers of Ænglisc started raising families in the British Isles in the 4th or 5th Century, we’ve stolen from every language we could. Leaving us with an embarrassment of riches in the synonym department.
This wealth of words with similar meanings leads some writers into excess, with the thesaurus aiding and abetting their literary crimes. The most noticed version of this crime is the Dialog Attribution Transgression. It’s dialog where John exclaims, Sue retorts, Jim rejoins, Walter observes, and so forth. When what the author really means is that John said one thing, then Sue said another, then Jim said something, and finally Walter said something.
It’s wonderful that the language has all these verbs that can describe a person speaking, but when every line of dialog uses a different verb, the reader stops following the story and wonders which verb you’re going to resort to, next. The author does this because he or she thinks that the repeated appearance of the word “said” is going to bother the reader. The mistake here is misunderstanding what is important in a fictional depiction of a conversation. The most important thing is what the characters actually say. The next most important thing is to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. Most of the time, tone of voice, facial expressions, and so forth are not even of tertiary importance. If you write the dialog correctly, the reader will infer a lot of those things just from the rhythm of the sentences.
Unfortunately, you only learn to do that by practicing a lot. And that takes time.
It’s perfectly all right to use some of those other verbs sparingly. For example, if there’s a tense conservation happening between a couple of characters, one character threatening the other, the threatened person may very well mutter resentfully, “For now…” or “You’ll be sorry” at the end. The fact that the person is muttering it, adding it as a threat of his own that he mostly doesn’t want to be overheard is probably important to the plot. But they really need to be reserved for situations where how someone says something is important to the story.
Dialog attribution isn’t the only place this sort of literary crime can occur. British author Simon Winchester likes to tell the tale of a student who, when assigned to write an essay describing how to do something, chose to write about how to transplant flowers, and apparently decided that saying one would need to wash their hands afterward, because their fingers would be dirty just didn’t sound academic enough. So he poked around in the thesaurus looking for other words that meant dirty (or earthy, as they would say in England), which eventually led him to refer to the need to wash one’s “chthonic fingers.” Chthonic is usually defined as “of or related to the underworld,” and thus often has demonic and even Lovecraftian connotations. It appears as a synonym for earth-related words because it originally referred to thing of or related to being buried or otherwise under the ground, and in myth the metaphorical afterlife was said to literally be deep underground.
My own tale, as an editor, was a writer who submitted a science fiction story set on a very inhospitable planet. After spending a paragraph describing just how deadly the planet’s atmosphere was, the author then transitioned to talking about some other aspect of the planet with the phrase, “…beneath that empyrean envelope…” Empyrean is a word that comes to English ultimately from Greek by way of Latin. And depending on where you look it up, it is defined as angelic, divine, God’s dwelling place, or the highest heaven in certain ancient cosmologies. In other words, heavenly. Not exactly a word that springs to mind for an atmosphere that will burn your skin off within seconds of contact, which seems more hellish. The writer had gone to a thesaurus, beginning with “sky” and looking up other words listed there until he found this one. Which he didn’t look up in a dictionary, he just typed it in and kept going. That’s a particularly bad idea with an unfamiliar synonym of a synonym of a synonym.
A lot of aspiring writers come at the craft with the notion that great writers know a lot about words, and therefore if you want to be good, you need to use a lot of words. But first, you have to be sure you know what the word means, including uncommon connotations. A word by itself has a lot of different meanings. In context, that meaning narrows. Which is why what writers really need to know a lot about is sentences.
Howsoever, that is a digression to be cogitated during a different diurnal cycle.